Core, Satellites, and Sprinkles

Let’s pingback to Kaylriene on his post on SL thoughts after 2 months. This really is a larger game design challenge, and one that as consumers we can feel but often have trouble articulating. Why is it that some games just work despite clear flaws, while others fail even if they are relatively even?

I posit this is more related to psychology and analogous to Maslow’s tower of needs.

In game terms we can instead view this as the core systems, which are then supported or perhaps dependent on satellite systems. Take the first Mass Effect, the core systems were RPG focused on story and character development. The inventory was horrible, and everyone is best to forget the vehicle portions – yet they were not a requirement to enjoy the game. Invert that to something like Anthem, where the core systems were inventory (it’s a loot game after all) and combat. The latter was seen in a positive light, but the former was disastrous.

Or you know, look at Marvel Avengers. The core activities are meaningless and people have just noped their way out.

Look at every GOTY candidate. They all have near perfect core experiences, with some having some challenges on the satellite systems. God of War is near perfect from start to end, every aspect. Horizon’s combat, development, and storylines are great… yet it’s pulled down by the ubisoft-world-map-icon-palooza system. Some even start throwing sprinkles on top of it all, because their foundations are so solid. Hades is a spectacular achievement in system design, and yet they threw in extra cosmetics, an integrated soundtrack, relationship development, and a super complex dependency chart that dictates what dialogue is presented. We get to a point where we’re comparing an indie company as being objectively better than multi-billion dollar developers (such as Last of Us pt 2).

WoW View

But to WoW for a minute here. I do think that SL’s core systems (dungeons, covenants, raids, borrowed power) are all relatively well balanced. Maybe not perfect, but balanced within relatively acceptable levels. The things you need to do generally work. Where SL stumbles is in the things you can optionally do. I could post a bunch of things, you could read Kaylriene’s post, you could visit Reddit or the official forums… suffice to say the list is quite long. The major balance issues are in satellite systems. In the general sense, the rewards for activities in SL is much lower than in recent memory… which is sort of anathema to the concept of carrot and stick.

If we time travel a tad, it’s been a long time since the core systems ‘worked’.

  • BfA – few of the core systems worked. Whether the Azerite Gear or the Corrupted items, or AP grind. The satellite stuff was ok, but had some serious challenges.
  • Legion – the core was generally good, but the AP grind was painful, as well as the heavy RNG on legendaries
  • WoD – the garrison is well, maybe let’s not talk about it. This is where flight was disabled too I may add.
  • MoP – The core systems here worked, by and large. The initial rep grind was tough, and the “forging” system came into play.
  • Cataclysm – the only core was a new talents system, the rest was all satellite. That is a major genesis of the LFR system as no one was engaged in the content.
  • WoLK – the core here was solid, and implemented a pile of new systems. The challenge was on the reforging mechanic and talents, which were removed/revamped in Cata.
  • TBC – The core was amazing here, yet hindered by the attunement system that made it very hard to “catch up” to relevant content
  • Vanilla – I just refer to this as the true sequel to EQ. The core was just a refinement of that game, and changed the MMO landscape as a result.

Each person has a different driver to play a game. Some people need the core to be solid and ignore the satellites, others can ignore the core and just focus on the outside stuff (I’m sure some people enjoy pet battles more than dungeons). It’s not a common thing where a game can do both well. In the MMO space, designers tend to focus on core as the driver for the multiplayer aspect, which in turn drives retention. It is FAR from easy, it requires vision and passion. It certainly requires consuming your product.

Here’s hoping that somewhere in this mess, we as consumers can find a better way to recognize and reward quality. And where it doesn’t exist, find a way to help the developers (who are by and large extra passionate) to find their way forward.

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