Given WoD’s interesting take on design, i.e. simplification above all else, I think a bit of an overview of system design is in order. I’ve mentioned in the past that I do this sort of work, outside of gaming, and that the skill set required to do this well is rather rare. This is a “forest for the trees” problem where most people are only able to see what’s in front of them and not what’s around them. A recent problem in my work is integrating toolsets for account management. There are trust requirements, security levels, agreements, risk tolerance and about 10 other items that pop to mind. Compare to the client who says “this should be easy”. Design is successful when it looks easy. When you only look at numbers and don’t have context, you make bad decisions.
When I look back on older MMOs, the ones with multiple systems who interacted with each other, we could see some synergy. While farming tubers in WoW vanilla was a pain, those that did it supported their guilds. Resist gear is another one. UO, for many years, had nearly all systems integrated – a tinker was a useful profession. You couldn’t really be a jack of all trades or even a specialist. You needed other people to succeed. FF14 is the first themepark in a longtime where I’ve seen system integration – crafters are required to modify gear.
Over the years and multiple design decisions, WoW has moved away from system integration. Keys, reputation, raid gating, resistances, crafting were all core in Burning Crusade. This meant that there was a large skill gap in BC if you came late to the party. If people were on Black Temple, it was a nightmare to get new blood to the game. So participation was really high at expansion launch and abysmal at later patches. That being said, it created strong bonds between groups. At the tail end of BC, the design team underwent a shift. The people who were present at conception of WoW moved on to other aspects and the live team came up. This was the coming of Ghostcrawler.
Previous to WotLK, classes had massive balance patches. Rogues, famously, underwent zero changes from launch until BC. Each decision was carefully considered, the impacts measured and the changes tested. This was a long dev cycle. When WotLK did come out, the process changed. Class patches were all over the place. Resistance was gone. Stats were simplified, drastically. Group quests were gone. Leveling was a separate system from end game. Reputation meant little. Many of the links between systems were removed and it made it a much simpler game.
Cataclysm is a rather prime example of the design team being somewhat disconnected. Many of the decisions during this expansion were supposed to be simple but in fact had rather large repercussions to the entire game. If you were to isolate each decision, in themselves they make sense. On the whole, which is exactly what a system architect does, there were some rather conflicting issues that never got resolved. MoP reversed a lot of those hiccups but then put in a gating (daily) system at launch that sucked momentum until later patches.
So two competing design intents. Vanilla + BC was about integration, group interaction, complexity and created a rather elitist model. WotLK until now has been pushing for a more segregated model, where systems are not dependent on each other and focus is on the casual individual. I can’t say which one was better as they were in different periods of time and targeted different groups. But I can say that the two design models are clearly conflicting. Which I guess explains the complaints all the time.