Monday, 26 October 2009

Defining Content

There's been a lot of talk on the optimal difficulty level for raids, I even had my own post about it a few days ago. One argument on the pro-easy side is "everybody should be able to see the content." I've countered this in the past with the question of why you would need to see new content while there is so much old content you haven't seen yet. Maybe it's the definition of content that's actually the core issue here.

In general, content is what keeps us playing the game. Content is something interesting to do within the virtual world. That definition holds true for every player there is - but the devil is in the details. Let's have another look at Richard Bartle's types of gamers: Achievers, explorers, socializers, and killers. The chart below shows how these are defined.

We can see that both socializers and killers fall straight into the "players" category, meaning that they get their enjoyment out of dealing with other players. While very different in the way they wish to interact, both of these types don't require the game developers to create a lot of content because the content they want is player created. What they need are the tools for interesting interaction, but once enough of those tools are in place, it's hard for either killers or socializer to run out of content. These are not the players we need to be concerned about, they will neither complain about not seeing all the content nor about the content being too easy as they don't care about it much at all.

Now achievers and explorers, they care about the world and therefore developer-made content. Essentially, achievers want things to kill while explorers want things to see - and that's where the issues begin. As an achiever I'm happy as long as there is stuff for me to kill that provides a challenge but not an insurmountable one. Working on a tough boss for weeks in a row, that's fine for an achiever. Doing the same boss you have done before but on a harder difficulty - also fine for an achiever. What the achiever doesn't like is if their isn't enough of challenge for her to keep her busy or if her achievements get diminished by being too accessible to people who don't work as hard for them. The achiever wants content to get progressively harder and rewards to scale with difficulty.

Explorers on the other hand want to see new stuff. From a raid perspective they actually care about the lore and the characters they are fighting. They don't want to fight the same boss over and over again, they don't want to do math and get a deep understanding of game mechanics, and they hate when they don't get to see the end of a storyline. To an explorer, killing Arthas will be the culmination of the WotLK storyline and event they would hate to miss. To an achiever, killing Arthas should be the pinnacle of skill, reserved for only a dedicated few.

I have many quarrels with the way Blizzard is implementing hard modes in World of Warcraft, but they do make for an adequate tool to provide content for both types of players without using up too many resources. Even though I am a die hard achiever, I can see why providing content for other players types is necessary and am willing to make compromises.

Please note, that these categories are not identical to my 2 dimensions of hardcoreness. Explorers can be hardcore too and achievers might not spend a lot of time playing at all. I feel that the game is going more into the direction of what Octale & Hordak call the "entitled casual." Explorers don't need item level 245 gear and achievers want to work for it. Yet, getting a high level of gear is becoming increasingly easy and it doesn't seem like Blizzard plans to change that course anytime soon.

It would be great if there was an explorer mode for raids that allows explorers to see the storyline develop. There could even be more cut scenes, more dialogue and hidden facts to uncover. What this mode shouldn't be is a real raid. Major storyline NPCs could do the fighting for you, with the players in the middle of it but not really challenged - think the assault on Undercity. Loot could be more cosmetic and there could generally be less of it, as the Explorer doesn't need it. It would be important that the explorer actually gets stuff to do and things to decide. You want to be an explorer after all, not a tourist.
The achiever could go into the raid in normal mode, wouldn't get help from NPCs, wouldn't have to endure all that dialogue, and would get real loot out of it.

You could say that that is what the current hard modes are, but that's not true. You are required to complete easy modes to even start doing hard modes and you would be stupid to not get the easy mode loot to help with the hard modes. At the same time, loot is extremely devalued because everybody gets the same stuff, with some achievers getting a green line added to their items. The explorers are also less happy because they don't get the neat-o scripted instance with tons of secrets to find but instead have to focus on not standing in fire and switching their polarity. The people that are happy with this are the achievers that don't want to put effort into achieving things (or are just plain too bad.) This type of player is indistinguishable from other achievers on the Bartle scale because she has the very same goals but wants those to be easier to reach.

I can see two reasons for Blizzard to cater to these types of players. The first one is obvious - there are a lot of them and their money talks. The second one is a bit more complicated (and quite a lot less "evil.") Most players don't fall squarely into one of the aforementioned categories. Below is my personal result for the Bartle test - a multiple choice questionnaire designed to find out where you personally lie on the Bartle scale.

As you can see, my inner achiever is quite dominant and I'm not much of a killer. I do show some behaviour commonly attributed to explorers and socializers though. In my case, the explorer in me doesn't care much about the lore, so not seeing a final boss isn't a problem for me. It might be for others however. What do we do about the player that is both an achiever and an explorer? My solution is simple, but I'm not sure whether people would agree that it is good: Run both types of instances. Achieve real things in the (sufficiently hard) raid mode of the instance while getting your explorer fix on in the scripted explorer mode.
If any of you readers are of this mixed achiever/explorer type - please tell me if this idea is completely stupid.

I suppose the main point of this post is this: Stop using "everybody should be able to see the content" as an excuse for making it easy. There are better ways of ensuring accessibility than to throw loot at people. If what you want is easy loot without a challenge, then say so, don't hide behind the explorer label when all you are is time-challenged (or lazy, or bad.)
Note that I'm not advocating against hard modes in general - they are a decent way to keep multiple kinds of achievers happy. But make them follow a progression path.
Ghostcrawler (Zombiecrawler? What do you call a dead ghost?) recently said this:

"They are not harder (for the most part) in a relative sense because you probably have better gear now than when you first went into ToC. Our goal is not to let players raid all the up until Icecrown and then throw a gate in front of them that says 'Must be this elite to ride this ride.'"

That's exactly the kind of bullcrap I'm talking about. Sure, let players see the content. But if they actually want to raid it, give us a fracking learning curve. Why does everyone who can beat Anub'arak have to be able to beat Arthas too? Same goes for hard modes. If the coliseum is any indication, Icecrown Citadel hard modes won't be harder than coliseum hard modes. Once you are "this elite" you are elite enough forever? That is just terrible.
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