From The Designer: How Attumen The Huntsman Came To Be

Now here’s something I don’t recall ever seeing before – a behind-the-scenes look at how a World of Warcraft raid boss was designed, right from the ground up.

Alexander Brazie is an ex-Blizzard designer, responsible for parts of some of WoW’s most iconic raids. This week he gave us a rare insight into how those raids came to be, as he took us through the design process of his first raid encounter at Blizzard – the first encounter of TBC-era raid Karazhan, Attumen The Huntsman:

“It was a warm day in May when I walked in the doors of the unlabeled entrance to Blizzard HQ, hidden deep in the heart of a school campus. After the usual couple hours of HR paperwork and contract signing, I was brought upstairs to the WoW team floor and deposited in the middle of the hallway/meeting room where the other game designers were sitting.

They were excitedly discussing the plans they had in store for the final boss of Karazhan, a 10-man raid instance – the first of its kind for the team. ”

Read the rest here

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GW2 Roundup: All Of This Has Happened Before. Plus Fractals.

I felt the time was about right for a Battlestar Galactica reference. Plus, it’s actually appropriate – Zubon’s really nailed it today with an example of how MMORPG history repeats itself, and is doing so again in Guild Wars.

Plus, we’ve got Psychochild’s epic examination of the game, more on fractals, and more…

  • Psychochild continues his dissection of GW2 from the point of view of an experienced developer – fascinating stuff in here” If we had infinite resources that were available everywhere, there would be no need for economics because there would be no scarcity. This is basically what has happened to GW2’s economy.”
  • Zubon gives us a spot-on example of a game that initially developed in a way spookily similar to Guild Wars 2“The PvE was relatively relaxed, the community was more positive than average. There was a lot of play and exploration below the level cap, and the endgame content was structured around single-group dungeons, although content did exist for larger groups of characters to tackle together, if you were up for fighting a dragon.”
  • Clockwork looks at the new Fractal dungeons, and unusually has more than a few issues with them“”Lets split the community into 40 units within each server!” – Said no wise developer ever.”
  • Keen writes a short piece in support of Guild Wars 2’s new direction with Ascended gear“The problem ArenaNet ran into is that they violated their own “Manifesto” (like a constitution for their game) and created a gear-grind when they said they wouldn’t.”

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Gear, Spaceships and Instant Messaging

SWTOR seems to be the topic of discussion today – and sadly not in a good way. In addition, we’ve got more interesting comment on the idea of MMORPGs morphing partially into social networks, and The Grumpy Elf looks at the perennial topic of gear and “welfare epics”…

  • Yes, Grumpy’s back, and today he has a thoughtful, interesting response to the question “why would non-raiders want raiding gear?”“For the non-raider your progression is your gear. If you are 330 you are starting, if you are 350, you are advancing, if you are 380 you are doing well and if you are 390, you are basically capped as far as you can go without raiding. “
  • Rohan at Blessing of Kings considers the way in which one of SWTOR’s cooler ideas – the personal spaceship – has actually become an albatross around its neck“Sometimes I wonder if The Old Republic managed to incur an ancient voodoo curse during its development. It feels like almost every design decision they made carried a hidden sting, an aspect that would later come back to bite them.”
  • Straw Fellow continues his “worst case” series of MMO futurism pieces, looking at just what might happen if SWTOR does indeed become free to play“SWTOR was supposed to be our last hope. It was supposed to prove that with a good IP and a solid budget you could create a game that could sustain itself on subscriptions. “
  • And Jacob at TL:DR considers the many potential benefits to games companies of allowing non-subscribed players to communicate with subscribers via an IM client“A communication system that spans on and offline would also encourage retention of players. Having an ease of communication between guild members just facilitates keeping a group of people together, which means people play the game longer. “

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Sausages, Painful LoTRO, and MMOs vs Dating – Wednesday Links

The last few days have seen a flood of awesome posts, partially inspired by the NBI, so we’re still running a backlog here! Don’t worry though – anything that we can’t fit in the week we’ll stick in a weekend post or the Weekly Digest email.

In the meantime, enjoy this fine flood of MMO thinking:

  • Is there any space left for new MMOs? Gazimoff of Mana Obscura demonstrates just how much untapped potential is left in the genre“That complexity doesn’t just have to come from mechanics. It can be choices like art style (realistic versus simplistic), story delivery (text quests versus fully voice acted), action style and so on.”
  • Spinks writes a really interesting post about how in-game morality choices make characters evolve“Suddenly I saw him as someone who was a brutal, efficient operative, but not completely heartless or unsympathetic any more. More of a hard man doing a hard job (which is still not a morally strong position) than the total emotionless psycho that he’d seemed up to that point.”
  • From well outside the MMOSphere, a really interesting infographic about how MMOs stack up against dating sites as a way of meeting your future partner.
  • Want to help out the New Blogger Initiative? Syl at Raging Monkeys writes a resource post on how you can contribute“This is what Syp’s initiative is about, highlighting newcomers. Besides receiving tips, it’s a wonderful way for them to get some exposure and attention, to feel seen and part of a greater circle of real and approachable people (most of them anyway!). That’s where your support comes in, very directly at the roots of the idea.”
  • And Syp at Bio Break tried to play LoTRO as a strictly free-to-play game, but discovered it was just too painful” It’s nice that it’s a possibility, but it’s way too much work — and, after all, that’s how Turbine wants it to be. The company doesn’t make money from you not paying them, so they’re going to try to ride that fine line between offering you freebies and the way to earn more freebies while tempting you with the easy road of a credit card payment. “

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2020 Vision: A Peek into the Future of MMOs

This is a guest post whilst Hugh’s away on holiday.

It’s around this time of year that we traditionally look at the new MMOs due out later this year. This summer promises to be an absolute corker, with Mists of Pandaria, Guild Wars 2 and The Secret world all competing for our attention – and our wallets. There’s also the games hovering on the edge of our vision, like End of Nations and WildStar. It promises to be a great future for MMO gamers.

Today I’d like to try a little bit of an experiment and push our vision of the future a little further. Instead of looking at the next year or two, I’d like to focus on the turn of the next decade: 2020. What will MMOs look like? How will we pay for them? Will we have indie or Kickstarter-funded MMOs?

I’ve had a stab at some of these questions with my own thoughts, but it would be great for you to play along as well! What do you think we’ll be playing in eight years’ time? Either sound off in the comments or blog about your own vision of the future and share it with us all!

Super-Sized Blockbuster Versus Niche Experience

Until recently I held the strong belief that the availability of tools such as HeroEngine and Red Door would usher in an explosion of new, niche concept MMOs. Since then my opinion has changed: I don’t think we’ll see anything other than blockbuster-tier MMOs for the foreseeable future. There’s one simple reason for this: World building is expensive and underrated.

An MMORPG is, at its heart, a role-playing game. That role has to sit in a game world, with a believable storyline that players can interact with. Moreso, the game world needs to have a geology and geography that makes sense, while being populated with indigenous flora and fauna that seem suitable for the location they’re in.

It’s this need to generate content – story, world, creatures – that necessitates a large team. While a small team can put a small world together, possibly releasing an MMO a zone at a time, a larger world will naturally require a larger team to develop. It’s because of the sheer amount of creativity required that I think we won’t see many small-scale or niche MMOs rushing in to use these new tools.

As a result, I can’t help but think that 2020 will look largely like 2012 from an MMO standpoint. Until it becomes cheap and easy to create vast numbers of animated art assets and written conversation, I don’t think we’ll see a take-off in the number of MMOs being developed. That’s not to say there won’t be any, but that indie developers will need to think around the problem. This could be through world generation algorithms (such as Minecraft), or through more of a sandbox than a theme park focus.

Telling Stories

I think that the brightest future of MMOs lies within their storytelling. Blizzard, BioWare and ArenaNet are all experimenting with different ways of presenting the story to players. Whether it’s phasing technology that changes the game world, intricate dialogue with powerful voice acting or redesigning the quest system, it’s become a major focus for developers. As a result, I’m expecting to see great things in the future, both in terms of the stories and settings we play in, and in how we’re drawn in to those stories.

I’m also optimistic that we’ll see a maturing of the genre, producing deeper content that invokes more passionate responses from us and forces us into making tougher decisions. I think that as writers learn more about the medium they’re working with and the audience they’re writing for, we’ll see greater confidence lead to more controversial and daring plot points.

Of course, I could be completely wrong on this point, and that we’ll see the same old stories continually churned out to fans that are there for the raiding and the PvP, and not the stories that surround them. Time will tell on this point, but I’d like to think that we’re there for more than just the pew pew.

The Changing Hardware Landscape

By the time 2020 arrives, we’ll probably have gone through one or two processor revisions and possibly three graphics card lifecycles. The PC you’re playing on now will have been replaced at least once and possibly twice. Displays will be sharper than ever, with hardware ramping up to power that increase in pixel density. Games in the future will look even more incredible than they do now.

We’ll also be taking our games with us. MMOs will feature substantial mobile components to keep us at least partially involved in the game, whether it’s on our smartphones or tablets. Blanket availability of low-cost wi-fi, cheap mobile data and fast networks will mean that checking on our characters will become as common as updating Twitter or Facebook. There’s even an argument to suggest that a future social network will only exist inside an MMO.

But while technology improves, I think it’s unlikely to radicalise our game experiences in the short term. I think it’s unlikely that computer generated speech will replace good voice acting. Better displays will require more detailed models and textures. A large chunk of a studio’s effort is going to be spent just keeping pace with development.

That said, I think there are some technology klunkers that will probably fade away. The big one is 3D. When factoring in the cost of a 3D-capable monitor and the required hardware, most gamers are just simply not interested. The other technology is the touch-screen desktop monitor which, while it sounds great in theory, leaves you peering at a smudge-ridden display in practice.

The Battle for Payment

By the close of this decade there’s likely to be at least one argument that won’t be settled: the best way to pay for our MMOs. Despite the period of economic uncertainty we’re experiencing, the subscription model still seems to be working for some of the more popular games. Likewise, the free-to-play model is winning gamers over, with former subscription games finding a surge in popularity after switching to this approach.

Will paying for content become the dominant approach, with paying for access becoming a rare exception? Unlikely, although subscriptions are likely to be reserved for MMOs that are sure-fire successes with a playerbase in the millions. For MMOs living with riskier propositions, the free-to-play model is likely to become the preferred option. As publishers warm to the idea based on existing MMOs, and buoyed by the success of Zynga, I reckon we’ll see more developers head this way.

I also think that as we see more developers embrace free-to-play that we’ll also see publishers focus more on providing common payment and account management systems. NCSoft and Trion are both prime candidates for this, but I also think that EA will look to leverage Origin as a payment and authentication system for aspiring developers. But these developers won’t just spontaneously start creating MMOs.

MMO Genre Encroachment

We’ve already seen single player PC games such as Assassin’s Creed: Revelations get thoroughly lambasted for requiring an always-on internet connection to play. Not satisfied with simple one-time activations, publishers are now forcing players to play on-line even though there is no benefit to doing so. Even worse, if a publisher’s DRM system goes offline then the single-player game becomes unplayable, as exemplified back in February this year.

In response to the understandable backlash from the PC games playing public, publishers are now looking to justify this draconian approach to digital rights management through the introduction of additional multiplayer features. Bullet-point features such as item trading markets, sharing of user generated content and drop-in multiplayer are all great, but not when they come with such a high cost.

As we approach 2020, I think it’s likely that we’ll see traditionally single-player games look to pilfer from the MMO genre in order to legitimise the need for an always online connection, where the game is tied to a player account rather than just a serial key. I’m not sure if it’ll work, but I have a feeling that it’ll end up dragging the MMO genre into the mud.

This was a guest post from Gazimoff of Mana Obscura – if you enjoyed this post, check out Mana Obscura for more great thoughts on MMO gaming as a whole!

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Weekend Bits And Pieces – SWTOR, WoW, and a manifesto

It’s been another bumper weekend for MMO blog writing, so once again I can’t confine myself to just a few blog posts to feature today.

Here’s some of the most interesting posts from Friday to today that didn’t fit under a single theme:

  • Tobold has a great summary and analysis of SWTOR’s crafting system – I’d heard bits and pieces, but this is a fascinating summary“I do think this is a very good system. Yes, it will annoy some people who want instant gratification. But it will allow others to actually craft items of value. And it will make crafting an important part of your main character, instead of being a task outsourced to an alt.”
  • Gazimoff writes a thought-provoking checklist of features for an ideal MMO – this is the kind of post that makes me want time to write a response myself! – “Once I finalised the list I realised something – I subconsciously judge each new MMO against this list. Some games do well in some areas but are poor in others, making the discussion difficult about which one is “better”.”
  • Cynwise is waxing passionate about a tiny-but-fascinating new game element in WoW- mailing transmogrified heirlooms“I told my friends about it, and they found it to be a lot of fun too. A LOT of fun. Simple things like character appearance matter. Looking put together makes you feel better about yourself, and it’s no different for our characters, too. “

Are you looking forward to SWTOR crafting? Subconciously running your own MMO checklist? Or just looking forward to decking out your alts?

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Pot Development: Google Page Speed Service and new ads

Hey, everyone!

As you may have noticed, we’re doing a bunch of development and improvement on the Pot at the moment. So, if you have any comments, you’ve seen something Going Wrong, or you have a suggestion, please let us know by email, Twitter or comment below!

Site Design

I admit it, I’ve been reading typography blogs. We’ve done a pass on the stylesheets on the site, changed the font, changed our links, and made a bunch of other changes. These should hopefully mostly be invisible, but let us know if you’ve noticed them, good or bad.

New ads

We’ve recently had a bunch of ad agencies asking if they can work with us on the Pot, which is nice, so we’ll be trialling various ads over the next little while. Let us know if you find them ugly or inappropriate – or alternatively if you think they’re particularly good! (I must admit, I just saw a Shadow of the Colossus ad that almost got me clicking on my own ad boxes…)

Google Page Speed

We’ve signed up with the beta Google Page Speed Service, which allegedly should make the site a lot faster for people who aren’t in the UK. Let us know if you see anything funny on the pages, though, or if they seem to be, you know, slower rather than faster!

Also, we’re always looking for ways to make the site faster – if you have any suggestions, please do comment.

Looking forward to hearing your comments!

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What makes a good raid?

I love deep, insightful think pieces – as you may have noticed – and today, Tree Heals Go Whoosh has something of a doozy for us.

See, Tzufit has been watching the discussion in the blogosphere about Firelands, previous raids, and what’s gone right and wrong, and today, she’s coming out with her thoughts on raids as a whole – what makes them work, and what makes them fail. It’s a pretty epic post, clearly born from a lot of thinking and expertise, and talks less about numbers, stats, and strategy than about mood, feel, and expectations

“Whether a designer is tasked with creating a raid instance that’s a haunted castle, an elemental plane, a horrifying zombie factory, or the seat of the world’s creators, the raid must feel like it could really be that place. Karazhan is an oft-cited example of this, and one that would have been difficult for its designers to screw up. The idea of a haunted castle isn’t exactly a new concept in fantasy, and so Kara’s designers had plenty of common mythology to use in its creation. A terrifying dungeon complete with a dead horseman, followed by hallways full of the ghosts of former guests, a dinner party gone wrong, a haunted opera, a living chess set, and a castle whose foothold in reality and our dimension slowly slips away as we rise higher and higher – while these are all things that may have been done before, they are perfectly executed in Karazhan.

Ulduar, for me, is the ultimate example of Blizzard’s design team being given a concept that could be extremely daunting and just hitting it completely out of the park. Imagine, at the beginning of Wrath, if you were one of the designers assigned to help figure out what the Titan architecture in the Storm Peaks would look like. The Titans were known of prior to Wrath, but we had seen only minimal examples of their structures in the form of the ruins of Uldaman. Instead of going in a predictable route and referencing Greek or Norse ideas of what the temple of the gods would look like, the Ulduar designers created something extremely unique. Ulduar blends “Titan technology” with classical columns, delicate stained glass, and the unique realms of each of the Keepers.”

It’s really nice to see a piece talking more about the game as an experience than as a collection of numbers. Tzufit’s right on the money here, certainly for me, when she’s talking about what makes these raid instances work and not work, and her decision to include a lot of quotes not just from her but also the rest of her guild make the piece feel well-researched and weighty.

And some of her points are decidedly non-obvious. I’d not really considered that the reason the Firelands doesn’t work for me, or a lot of people, is that it matches our expectations but nothing more. As a storyteller I know it’s important to surprise and delight as well as fit into expectations – but applying that rule to the raid instances of WoW suddenly makes sense of why the continual crazed inventiveness of Kharazan or Ulduar are firm favourites, whilst the ongoing red of The Firelands, just doesn’t do it. And no matter how much we may talk of WoW, or any other MMO, as a game, the fact is the most magical moments and the greatest memories come from when we’re immersed and forget that fact.

Great piece, and I heartily recommend reading right the way through!

Do you agree with Tzufit’s analysis? Or do you think there’s more to it? Let’s discuss!

Quote taken directly from Tzufit’s magnum opus .

Find Tree Heals Go Whoosh at http://treehealsgowoosh.wordpress.com/ .

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When Tedium Makes A Game Better

With WoW being more and more streamlined these days, it’s very interesting to read a post from a game developer explaining why he’s deliberately building tedium into his game.

And that’s what Eric of Elder Game is talking about today – tedium. He’s been considering how to allow players access to all the different classes his game will have to offer, and has made the decision to let them switch role – but only when they’re in town, not in the middle of a dungeon.

One of his testers suggested that he should allow them to switch arbitrarily instead – after all, by forcing a town switch wasn’t he just artificially limiting his players from what they want to do? Well, it turns out the answer is not at all – and here’s why

“It’s also important to let players feel clever while they play. And I admit that if you could switch classes constantly, you would feel pretty clever for a while, switching to just the right situation for each battle… but you’d only feel clever for a while, because it would be more-or-less mandatory (due to the social pressure to keep up with your friends). Then it stops being “clever” and starts being “work.”

I want players to feel clever. I also want them to min-max, if that’s what they like doing. Remember that there’s a third set of abilities in the game, along with the two sets of class abilities you get. These abilities can be cherry-picked at any time, and doing so will let you min-max boss fights (and regular fights too, but not so much). I think it’s fun to carefully plan out your boss fights. I just don’t think it’s fun to have to plan out every fight.”

Every game designer has to make these choices, and it’s in choices like this that might initially seem obvious that the “style” of a game emerges. “Team B”, the current team in charge of World of Warcraft, have a very player-enabling, “let’s make it fun” style which directs them to streamline the content of the game. The LoTRO team, by contrast, tend more toward classic WoW’s mode of thinking – limitations are a useful part of building gameplay and a world.

Eric’s post is, as always, a fascinating insight into the part of the game we don’t see – the pre-release thinking about just how to craft an experience of a world.

Do you like a little tedium with your gameplay? Or do you believe that it’s a game, dammit, and if you want to do something you should be able to?

Quote taken directly from Eric’s post .

Find Elder Game at http://www.eldergame.com/ .

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Would you love a heist movie instance? I would.

I’m a huge fan of the TV series Leverage. For those of you who don’t know it – it’s basically a heist movie every week. The team of implausibly cool thieves takes on a different injustice every week, and charges off to steal justice from a variety of unpleasant people.

Now, they’re clearly a team – but they don’t spend a lot of time together. And it’s wonderful fun watching them all coordinate. Today, Level Capped is asking an intelligent question – why don’t we ever get to do that in-game? Just because we’re all in a group, why do we have to spend all our time… in a group?

But one thing that developers haven’t really explored, as far as I am aware, is the notion of playing together, alone. That’s not the same as playing alone, together. The later is about being alone in a world full of other people. The former is about playing with others, but not with others.

Think of Ocean’s Eleven (which ever version floats your boat). That’s a prime example of together, alone. There’s a group of people working together, but they’re not all together. Each person or group has a task that they need to execute in their own space in order for the heist to go off as planned.

It’s a really interesting idea, and one that developers haven’t really explored. There’s been a few bits and pieces – I recall the lightning boss in Ulduar with the seperate gauntlet, which was great fun, and of course Ulduar’s visions of madness. But we’ve never seen a full-on heist boss, with the healers Levitating through the skylight whilst the tanks distract the guards at the front gate and the rogue and kitty druid ninja in through the back…

Well, I can dream. And I dream that’d be awesome.

What do you think? Great idea, or awful idea? And can you think of other similar examples that already exist in-game?

_Quote taken directly from Chris’s post on Level Capped.

Find Level Capped’s homepage at http://www.levelcapped.com/_

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