Blizzard Design – Lessons Learned

Rohan and Syp got me thinking about how developers are forced to be iterative in terms of addition rather than in terms of subtraction.  What I mean by this is that any given game that expects longevity cannot regress in terms of feature sets.  People have expectations upon purchase and business models are dependent on having clientele – MMOs triply so.

Let’s consider the two main items in the news.  Titan has been restarted (I think this is the 3rd time) and Blizzard has plans on a D3 expansion.  The former isn’t surprising given Blizzard’s track record.  They have released the following games of note: Wacraft (1/2/3), Starcraft (1/2), Diablo (1/2/3) and WoW.  You would be hard pressed to argue that any given game in a series was a departure from the previous – simply an iteration on a given model.   To top it off, Warcraft and Starcraft are nearly direct IP thefts from Warhammer.  So in 18 years, Blizzard has 1 new IP and plenty of experience tweaking the ones they built all that time ago.  Blizzard takes very few risks so that they don’t alienate their massive playerbase.  If Titan ever does come out (they need a new codename for it), I don’t see it as being something completely new, just an iteration of an existing IP and format.  It’s worked for nearly 20 years.

The second news item deals with people’s expectations of Diablo 3’s feature set.  Consider the PS3 version has no online requirements and no AH – the two largest complaints against the PC version – many view this as a sign that those features are going to be removed from the PC proper.  Hold on a sec here.  We’re a year in and the PS3 port still isn’t ready.  We’re not talking about taking a console game with a set configuration and making it work on a bajillion PCs.  We’re talking about the other way around, which usually has more to do with the UI size and controller layout.  If it’s taken a year (arguably longer since this was rumored many years ago) then perhaps this egg is a bit tougher to crack.

In systems design we have disparate systems, integrated systems and synergistic systems.  Disparate ones are completely separate and have next to nothing to do with each other.  /gems in EQ is an example.  Integrated systems have parts that are shared between 2 or more systems.  LFD/LFR systems are here.  Synergistic systems are ones that are separate in terms of mechanics but complement each other in game.  Crafting in most cases fit the bill.

D3 was built with the AH in mind.  Stats play a much larger role here than in any other game I’ve ever played and there were clear benchmarks required for survival in Inferno when the game launched.  I can’t think of a game where 1 item level had such a massive impact on player power.  Because the Diablo model is 99% of the loot you find you can’t use, this requires a sink for the gear.  In the past it was selling/gambling.  With an AH, maybe gear you can’t use (as a Monk) someone else can (say a Wizard).  So you try to sell it.  Let’s say you find one piece of “decent but not great” gear every hour.  4 million other people are playing and doing the same.  Think about that for a second.

If Blizzard wanted to remove the AH, they would have to change the entire mechanics of how loot dropped and how monster power was calculated.  The “floor” of gear suddenly drops by a large factor and people will have a much harder time progressing.  All of a sudden, crafters become attractive (just like gambling was in D2).  Plus you still have millions of players using the AH to progress today and a rather large item gap between the top end and bottom end.  Some people don’t farm Inferno for their gear, they farm for other’s gear to make cash to buy their stuff or use the RMAH.  That and the entire business model of D3 is predicated on the RMAH.  Even if the expansion offered an off-line no-AH mode, then you’d have two similar but different games.

I don’t see an easy fix here.  I do see a lot of lessons learned, lots.

Today is a Bad Day at Blizzard

First the news that WoW is down 1.3 million subs and only counts 8.3 million.  We never really know how many are playing, given that the Chinese playerbase is so liquid.  That being said, many servers are turning into ghost towns (not Stormrage, that’s for sure) where it seems that open world PvP is the main cause.  Guess that there’s real competition out now for those who want their kicks.

To contrast a bit, no other western game even has 1.3 million subscribers.  At 15$ a month, that’s about $20 million lost on a monthly basis.  Still, 8.3 million players after 9 years is something!

The second bit of news is that Diablo 3’s recent patch has destroyed the economy in a fell swoop.  A bug on the RMAH (for real money) caused massive gold duping, to where some people have amassed more money individually than the game had as a whole previously.  That link shows gold that is worth about $10 million real cash.  Given that the normal AH, that uses gold, had a cap of 2 billion per item, a lot of that money has been spread around to users selling item and caused hyper-inflation.  An item that might sell for a few million a week ago was going for the full 2 billion yesterday.  Not sure how this type of bug got through QA, considering it’s the main cash cow for the game.

And Blizzard isn’t considering a roll-back.

Quite a series of events.