Monday, January 24, 2011

No mods? No MMO!

I'm getting tired of people announcing MMOs. Can we please come up with a name for, "a game where many thousands of people can play in the same world, but where the UI is created solely by the publisher, and user interface mods cannot be written? How about Online Large Dynamic game or "OLD game"?

I've heard a lot of feedback around this point, so let me summarize all of the discussion that usually takes place, below, but if you want the TL;DR version: User interface modding is hard to do right, hard to support, and absolutely required of anyone who is seriously trying to unseat the primary MMO (World of Warcraft) in the market. I'll get to why, later. As Warhammer proved, it's not sufficient, but it is a requirement for long-term re-playability and community-building.

As a general note, I'll use "addon" and "mod" somewhat interchangeably, here. I see a "mod" as being anything that modifies the actual in-game experience (e.g. Auctioneer, HUDs, etc.) where "addons" are a much broader category that include simple user-interface changes and other tweaks as well as mods.

But my MMO of choice let's me change colors/fonts too!

Well, that's very nice, but changing layout and look-and-feel isn't what UI modding is about. Here are a few things that user interface modders have done in World of Warcraft:
  • Added an auction house interface with long-term trend tracking, pricing assistance, scanning, tooltip enhancements, etc.
  • I have a tiny addon installed that just alerts me every time I get agro on my healer or dpser characters, by playing a voice saying "agro!"
  • One mod allows damage numbers to be filtered so that many damage numbers can be compressed down into single numbers to avoid spamming my screen.
  • A mapping mod puts known locations of mining and herbalism resources on my map and then draws an efficient route between them so that I can run around grabbing stuff for my other professions.
  • A chat mod transformed the standard chat windows into an IM-like interface that tracks who I'm having conversations with and warns them when I'm in combat and unable to reply.
  • A raid-running mod lets raid leaders perform all kinds of basic administrative tasks more easily and improves on the basic "ready check" mechanic that the game provides.
  • I have a mod installed that tracks how much gold I have on all of my characters and how much gold I've made/lost this session. Similarly, other mods track what goods I have on my characters and put notes in tooltips so that I know if an item is already in my bank or in the mail, etc.
So to sum up, changing colors, fonts and layout is an important part of modding, but so is adding usability to the game that the developers haven't thought of or are not prioritizing.

Addons are cheating / WoW is easy because addons tell you what to do.

I have to agree to a point. There are things that Blizzard has been tolerant of from the addon community that I think they should have stamped out (in some cases they did, but took quite some time to do so). Then there's the question of DBM and other "how to raid" mods. In part, I have to agree that these mods are not a good thing, but most of my reasoning has nothing to do with "cheating." Quite the opposite; mods like DBM are so much an expected part of the raiding experience that Blizzard designs encounters so that they expect you to play with addons that tell you what's going to happen. I'd rather they focus on making these things visually distinct (e.g. giant pillars of lava are probably things you should not stand in). As it is, bosses now "emote" subtle queues that these mods pick up on and tell you "turn around to avoid being blinded," or the like.

IMHO, this is just bad raid design, but the fact that WoW has bad raid design has absolutely nothing to do with the value of mods. Just like WoW bans the use of mods that facilitate cross-faction chat, they could just as easily ban mods which act as "howtos" in raids. That's a matter for game designers to decide, and has nothing to do with allowing addons in the first place.

If the default UI is fine, you don't need addons.

This is said fairly often, but the fact of the matter is that no gaming company has ever produced a perfect (or perfectly customizable) UI. Addons will always improve the game because there will always be someone out there with a good idea that no one in the gaming company thought of. It's just a matter of numbers.

But addons allow viruses!

This, I had to throw in, just because it's sometimes said, and easy to correct: while allowing data from untrusted sources to be interpreted by your computer is always risky, WoW has addressed this problem by giving addons no access to the system or external networks other than by writing saved variables files for state information in a known directory. Addon security must be taken extremely seriously, but with a good, trusted distribution mechanism (something WoW lacks and third-parties have had to back-fill), game designers should be able to do this job reasonably. Your Web browser has a much riskier job to do in running JavaScript which is required by nearly every Web site in the world, now, so if you're OK with the Web, allowing addons in video games is a no-brainer. If you're like me, and you restrict JavaScript on the Web and are very careful about who you allow to run code in your browser, then you should do the same in video games.

I'm a game developer, and I can spend my time on content or UI mods, why would I choose the latter?

This is probably the one question that I have serious respect for. Game developers are pushing the limits of productivity and trying to release a game on time. How can they spend hundreds of man-hours on developing a tool that very few of their players will ever interact with directly? The right answer is to ask how they can spend so much time on the internal content tools they develop? Sure, your players will never use them, but without them, you'll end up producing a game that's unplayable. The sad fact is that you have to budget for this up-front.

On the flip-side, game developers don't seem to push this as a major selling feature. Why is that? If you produce the bigger, badder UI addon framework and it's designed to build a community, why wouldn't you be pushing that to everyone who will listen?! Make it drive the buzz about your product in technical circles where a video game wouldn't normally be news. Get Slashdot talking about it. Have industry publications talking about how this is the new face of community development. Create a new kind of grassroots hype channel for your game!


Here are some interesting quotes on the matter:
  • "People want loads of content right off the bat, and third-party add-ons are a given now," he said. "It’s a tough situation for new games." -MMO FFXIV needs 'FFVII's impact', Strategy Informer
  • MMO fans may be wondering if there will be any interface customisation but at this point TRION are holding off on add-ons. However, they are open to the idea but it’s unlikely they will go as far as the customisation we saw in World of Warcraft. (which I read as "we don't want to be a real MMO") -RIFT Hands-on Preview, IncGamers


My personal feeling is that WoW is a great first try when it comes to allowing user-authored UI mods in an MMO, but it's horribly out-dated. I really don't understand why someone hasn't produced an MMO with an app store, for example. I mean, isn't that painfully obvious? The other problem is updates. There really should be a company-hosted development site through which addon authors can be tracked and their addons monitored so that the authors of the most popular addons can be notified of upcoming releases and betas, be involved in the process, and more importantly, the community can be made aware early on when a major addon hasn't been made to work with an upcoming change. WoW is always broken for a month after any big change because addon development is poorly coordinated, and that's just not something that should be expected.

After all, World of Warcraft is getting on in years, and it seems to me that the world of downloadable addons has taken over several industries. Isn't it about time that MMOs get some love in this respect, and actually start leading the way again?

If you're working for a gaming company and you find yourself wondering: should we have addons? Stop immediately and ask, instead, "what's the next big thing," in addons, and can we do that?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Thinking ahead in WoW: Post-Cataclysm instances

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm ("Cata" is how I'll abbreviate this from here on, and could Blizzard please think about how people are going to abbreviate their expansion names from here on in?) is a great expansion. People are fired up about the new content, the new trade skill, the art... basically everything. The only problem I see is that instances aren't all that fun. There are some great moments, but most of the effort seems to have gone into two things: gimmicks and fire.

By "gimmicks," I mean the use of non-traditional instance tools. The best example is the first instance I ran: Throne of Tides. This instance has so many gimmicks that it's hard to imagine before you walk in. There are cut scenes, teleporters, a jellyfish elevator, a raid boss you get buffed to kill, mobs that jump out of the walls, etc.

By fire, I'm of course referring to the ground effects that harm players during a fight. Sadly, it's become such a pervasive element of encounters (boss and trash alike) in Cata that your strafing keys will be worn out before the next expansion. This makes a mechanic which was previously a nice way to force players to stay alert into something of a tedious way to make ranged casters less effective. You see, melee attackers like my enhancement shaman just strafe around behind a mob, avoiding fire while they fire off their normal barrage of instant-cast effects. My mage, on the other hand is forever interrupting his fireball casts and having to dump an lower-damage, instant-cast spell instead. My mage just cannot keep up with my shamman for dps throughput, even though they're nominally fairly evenly matched.

So, what should encounter design have brought to the table in Cata? Well, some variety without gimmicks might have been nice, but there have to be enough vanilla fights to establish the norm as well. Let's look at one of the most creative instances in Cata: The Vortex Pinnacle. This instance is entirely built in the clouds, and has some interesting mechanics which aren't just gimmicks. For example, there are trash pulls where the mobs start off in fields that prevent substantial amounts of damage, and you have to pull them out to fight. A nice way to break up the otherwise routine fights without changing the in-combat mechanics if the pull is executed correctly. No one loses dps or has to do anything unusual. There are also some nice fights where the "fire" is much more equitable because it requires that everyone move to a particular side of the boss or that everyone move to a specific location while the boss does some large AoE effect. However, the majority of the trash pulls are of the sort one would expect and the boss abilities don't get too gimmicky.

The only other thing that really feels wrong in Cata is the speed-bump at the start when WotLK and Cata dungeons are viewed as a continuum from level 70 to 85. That is, there is such a radical rise in gear ilevel between the ilevel 187 normal-mode drops in level 80 WotLK dungeons to the ilevel 308 normal-mode drops in the first normal-mode dungeons in Cata that there's no way to avoid some very disappointed players who try to level exclusively in instances from the 70s to 85. To counter this, it would have been nice to see Blizzard change the ilevel of some of the WotLK normal-mode gear (perhaps scaling it all up to the ilevel of the ICC 5-man instances -- at ilevel 219, this would still present a big step between dungeons, but might have softened the blow). Granted, a little questing quickly resolves the issue, but that won't prevent many players from going in cold and feeling like they're of no use in early Cata dungeons.

In general, I think the instance design in Cata shows that Blizzard isn't just trying to pump out the same old thing over and over and that's good, but they may have become slightly carried away in Cata with making instances "special".