Friday, September 13, 2019

An Inconvenient Truth: WoW Classic

WoW Classic is inspiring a deluge of thoughtful, detailed blog posts. It's been quite a while since we've seen such a response to a single game. Belghast has an excellent analysis of why and how Classic is succeeding, while SynCaine indulged himself with one of his trademark rants - not seen one of those for a loooong time.

Shintar also has a thought-provoking post up on the benefits of inconvenience, a topic upon which I have been musing for a while. (There's also a really well-argued comment there from Kring on another hot topic: why and how Classic and Retail are, and should remain, different and wholly separate games).

I'm not quite ready to post my thoughts, let alone my conclusions, on convenience vs inconvenience.  I may never be. It's an extremely complex and twisty concept.

I have, however, been making the odd note here and there, which would make a nice bullet-point list. I think most of these would fall under the rubric of "convenience" in some fashion or other. Maybe listing them out and footnoting them will help things fall into place for me. Or not.
  • Looking for shot in all the wrong places 
As a Hunter I have to keep a supply of ammunition on hand. This in itself can be seen as an inconvenience and certainly has been by many. You also have to have an Ammo Pouch or a Quiver, which only holds shot or arrows as appropriate. And it takes up one of your vital bag slots.

Blizzard removed ammunition from the game entirely with Cataclysm. They initially intended to replace it with "some new functionality that would continue to make ammunition a compelling element of game-play" but in the end they didn't bother. That in itself tells you something about how thinking may have changed within the company around that time.

Keeping your Hunter supplied with ammunition is also a significant expense or a major timesink if you want the best stuff, which is either crafted by Engineers or dropped in dungeons. For leveling, however, most people buy their ammo from vendors.

You'd think, then, that there would be vendors in all major locations,who'd sell it. According to this list you'd be largely correct. Of course, it's not that simple.

I ran out of shot somewhere in Duskwood so I went to Darkshire to resupply. There is someone who sells ammo there but they're a Fletcher and they only sell arrows.

Oh, will you stop growling? They'll have some at the next place. If they don',t you can eat the vendor. Promise.
From there I decided to go to Sentinel Hill, since there's a griffin route. Again, they only sell arrows. It would be more convenient to have ammo vendors who sold both but that's not how Azerothian society operates.

At this point it occurred to me to wonder whether this reflected the fact that it's mainly Dwarven Hunters who use guns, for which they get a racial bonus. Then I realized that Humans can't even be Hunters (the logic of how that could happen escapes me). The only other Alliance race that's allowed to hunt is Night Elves. Since there's a whole sector of Stormwind given over to Dwarves, whereas Night Elves are a relatively rare presence, it would seem to make more commercial sense for vendors to stock up on shot than arrows.

I ran to Goldshire, where I was sure there would be a General Goods vendor who'd help me out. The linked list (which I wasn't using at the time and have only looked at while researching this post) says there is but I couldn't find him or her.

In the end I had to go all the way to Stormwind. I believe some of that was down to my own incompetence - I probably missed at least one vendor who sold shot, somewhere along the way - but most of it was down to vendors having been placed with more consideration to the integrity of the notional community in which they operate than the convenience of players who might want to use them.

And that's part of why Classic Azeroth feels like Somewhere, not just an exceptionally fancy GUI.
  • On the road is off the map
Classic Wow uses two common RPG tropes: fog of war and discovery xp. When you enter a new zone your map is completely blank. It fills out as you run around and each new area you open gives you xp.

So far, so conventional. Azeroth, at least in the civilized and settled areas, also has a decent road network. Most players use it to get from one place to another without having to stop every ten yards to fight something.

Roads aren't one hundred per cent safe, especially for low levels crossing higher level zones, but they are a lot safer than trying to take cross-country short cuts. Few creatures hang out in aggro range of the highways and visibility is usually good, so those that do can be seen in time to avoid them.

If you want to know what they're hiding you'll just have to go and see for yourself.
I run along the roads a lot and yet, after a while, I noticed that pounding the pavement wasn't lifting the fog. If you stick to the roads, it's not just possible but normal to see the little arrow that marks your progress lost in a flat, ochre haze.

If you want to open your map up you have to step off the road and poke around in the undergrowth. That way you happen upon ruins, caves, camps and settlements and finding those is what triggers discovery xp and opens your map.

This is very inconvenient, particularly if you are trying to find a location some NPC asked you to visit. I have spent hours, first looking for some named location that I hadn't yet discovered and then going "North East" of there to find some camp, which, when found, turned out to be a discovery point of its own.

If I had a pre-opened map with no fog of war or quest pointers or any of the other modern conveniences, I could go straight to where I wanted in a fraction of the time, finish my quest and get out of there.

In doing so, I would miss any number of chance encounters, discoveries, sights, experiences and wonders. My gameplay would become a box-ticking exercise, the main satisfaction in which would be how quickly I could get it done and forget about it.

In this case, inconvenience would seem to lead to entertainment, not to mention immersion.
  • It's on my radar
One incredibly useful ability that Hunters get is Tracking. Several MMORPGs I play have some kind of tracking skill but Classic WoW's implementation is particularly interesting to me.

For a start, it's not a single skill. It comes in stages as you level up. You need to visit a Trainer and pay for each new version separately. First, entirely logically, comes Track Beast, followed by Track Humans, then Track Undead. I'm now up to Track Hidden although I have yet to stump up the coin to add it to my tracking portfolio. I haven't looked to see what comes after that.

I find all of the ones I have so far almost ridiculously useful. When I play other classes who don't have tracking it feels like I'm playing with blinkers on.

Unlike EverQuest and EverQuest II, where tracking brings up a sortable list of everything in range, which you can then use to target and find a specific individual, Classic Tracking adds a radar image to your mini-map. If you mouse over the dots you can see their names.

Listen, you fur-faced wazzock! I'm tracking and we are not stepping off this road. You want to be raptor food? Again?

This has several implications. You can use it to track specific mobs or NPCS by looking at all the dots until you find the one you want. Of course. you have to ignore all the players, who are tracked by Track Human, and their pets, who show up on Track Beast. It's fiddly and, yes, inconvenient but it works.

The display being restricted to the mini-map limits the range to what your character could reasonably be expected to see. If you want to track a quest NPC, for example, there's no use popping Track Human when you get the quest unless he's standing almost right next to you.

The most desirable function of the system, for me at least, isn't finding things at all; it's avoiding them. Using the radar functionality I can see every mob of a given type in a 360 degree field of view. By expanding the mini-map I can judge with good accuracy how to weave between the red dots so as not to get aggro.

In zones with poor visibility, which is most of them, this makes cross-country travel much less hazardous. It's a bona fide advantage that an outdoor specialist like a Hunter should have. It adds hugely to class diversity, which is a key factor in the whole "this is a real place my characters are living in" sensation.

Tracking could be too convenient and powerful, if, as in the original Guild Wars, the mini-map showed you every entity in range. Splitting it by creature type retains the element of surprise. In Wetlands, for example, I usually have Track Beasts up so I don't get sideswiped by crocolisks, who have a very authentic propensity for hiding in the rushes next to streams, where they are all but invisible.

As I move away from the water, I swap to Track Humans so as to pick up the scent of roaming Gnolls. ("Human" is a very broad category as far as tracking goes. They really should have called it "Track Humanoid").

Swapping is instant but even cycling between all the tracking options doesn't let you see all the threats. Slimes, for example, or Dragon Whelps. Maybe a max-level Hunter with all the options can see everything but they'd still have to keep switching constantly to do it.

Which would be very inconvenient!

Thet're on that ship. Undead! I can smell 'em. Wait, that's not you , is it?

I did have a few more examples but this has run on a bit (Never! Really? Who'd have thought it!). There's a great deal to say about the implications of convenience and the lack of it in MMORPGs, not least whether anyone designing the games is qualified to assess or predict the outcome, should they decide to change the parameters.

As I said in my comment to Shintar, "It would take a university research project, a team of psychologists and social scientists, a multi-million dollar budget and several years to come up with even a preliminary report!". I'm no more qualified to make these assessments than any lay player. Probably won't stop me trying, though.


  1. This post, and those like it, start digging into what I believe is the core misunderstanding from many about why Classic 'works' and Retail (plus most themepark MMOs today) stopped working; it's easy to identify that having to find an ammo vendor, with some areas not having one at all, is inconvenient. No one is going to claim that the act of walking to a vendor is 'fun and engaging gameplay'. What most miss is that while doing that task, you might stumbled upon said fun and engaging gameplay, like a more hidden quest you missed, or a side area with a rare spawn.

    Remove the need to find and go to the vendor, and you remove one reason people explore to begin with. When you remove all such 'invconviniece', the end result is a hand-held, guided on-rails tour through a zone. All the pieces come together as intended, but it lacks what an MMO needs most; the feel of being in a world, rather than playing out a single-player RPG that happens to exist on a server.

    1. If the success of Classic does nothing else it should at least get players and developers thinking about just what it is that does and doesn't work. I guess we should hardly be surprised that there have been so many dead ends and wrong turns since WoW changed the landscape back in 2005-7. After al, it's pretty much acepted wisdom that no-one, either at the time or since, understood why WoW was such a huge hit and none of the WoW Clones that fllowed it was able to replicate that success, even in miniature.

      I don't think many game developers working in large, corporate offices on projects they aren't personaly connected to are likely to have the wherewithal to understand the wider implications of the changes they make. A lot of it is purely reactive and the rest often seems to be almost random. Indie devs and small teams on passion projects do far better at maintaining vision and coherence but they rarely have the resources to make games that have any impact.

      I just hope Classic leads to some real soul-searching within the industry, not, as I fear, yet more badly thought-out reaction.

  2. Immersion and sense of world can coincide even if inconveniences exist in the game. WoW Classic manages to provide a setting where suspension of disbelief occurs very easily for the majority of players, and little inconveniences such as your ammo example is just one illustration of how a player can either suspend disbelief, or it could even be a "deal breaker" to the next player.

    WoW Classic is full of these little idiosyncrasies that tests a players resolve as it's related to immersion, and I think the real test here will be just how long player's will be able to suspend disbelief when time-limitations, real life demands and what-not stand to affect a player's willingness to put up with them.

    I only had a couple of hours to play the other night, and needed to put a BFD run together to knock out some quests I had there. It took almost an hour to start the instance as 3 of the 5 party members had never been to Zoram Strand, let alone Kalimdor, before. I found myself becoming frustrated with the wait, as my time limitation that night was very tight. Yet it was apparent that these players were new to the Classic/Vanilla experience- as indicated by their lack of travel knowledge, so as Party Leader I took it upon myself to get them there as quickly as possible. But here's the critical part I think; my frustration wasn't building because I had to wait, my frustration was building due to the actions of the other players. 2 of the 3 players who had to make the journey kept trying to take short-cuts and were encountering mobs along the way as indicated by their health bars. One even died as a result and had to complete the corpse run back to where he had died.

    Three hours(total) later we finally finished BFD, and at least one upgrade was obtained by all who went. Two of the players also dinged to the next level while inside, so everyone got some form of reward for participating.

    I think the big 'elephant in the room' question for Classic will be how the player culture will develop as compared to how it developed in Vanilla in regards to the time commitment needed to play the game. Us veterans know the pitfalls, the newer players don't. But from what I've seen thus far, it's us veterans who stand to be the single biggest influence on how the game progresses from here on out.

    1. Very good point indeed. Classic is less than three weeks old and a lot of us are talking as though its going to be a major ongoing success and a gamechanger for the genre. And it could be either or both but it could just as easily fade into the background as people drop out because of time constraints, satiation, frustration and having done all they feel they need to do.

      I think that, being WoW and having the profile and numbers it has, it will remain a solid commercial success for a long while, holding player numbers that other MMOs would die for, but whether it really will eclipse or equal Retail is far from certain.

      The mix of new players and veterans is odd, too. There can't be many "new" MMORPGs that have launched with a combination of experienced players and total newbies. Every game has a cadre of beta testers who know the ropes but usually they are swamped by orders of magnitude more players who come to the game completely fresh. In this case i agree that the old hands are on the tiller (there's a twisty metaphor!).

      As for your anecdote about getting a group to a dungeon, that is SO my experience from EverQuest c. 2002. I stil have a vivid memory of trying to get a group to Mistmoore in Lesser Faydark. It took forever. Half the group either got hopelessly lost or died, some of them more than once (and dying was a big deal in EQ, far more so than WoW). The ones who got there, includingme, just had to wait and watch - if anyone went to try and help it just made the problem worse. In the end we never even got into the dungeon. After what was probably an hour or so the group broke up with a couple oof people never even having made it to the entrance.

      That was an extreme example but most groups started with some lesser version. It was part and parcel of the process and I have to say that even at the time I found it quite exciting. Getting the group to the dungeon was an adventure initself, which is how it should be in a virtual world. Whether people en masse still have the patience or the taste for that kind of adventure, though, I'm not at all sure.

      I guess we'll find out. Also, when were Mission Stones changed to allow porting? Is that on the update schedule for Classic or did it come with BC?

  3. The term that was used in Vanilla to describe them was "Meeting Stones". The ability to use them to summon party members didn't come about until BC in patch 2.0.1, when they then became being referred to as "Summoning Stones".


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