Vague Patch Notes: Understanding systems before you talk about them


Here’s a fun question to consider. What were Emblems of Valor and Emblems of Heroism designed to do in World of Warcraft? Yes, they were there as currency to buy gear, but what problem were they there to solve? Why wasn’t there just a single currency? Why did the game need a new currency?

You might actually know the answer to the question already, but don’t worry, it’ll be answered later regardless. Just stash that in the back of your mind for now because today we’re talking about understanding systems and doing that leg work before you critique them.

MMOs are big, sprawling creatures full of systems, as we no doubt are all aware by this point. And there’s a temptation, both by players railing against systems and by new designers arriving on the game, to tear down some of those systems that don’t seem to have any particular purpose. This is an attitude best taken on by the late G. K. Chesterton, I think.

Whether or not you’re familiar with G. K. Chesterton as an author read for recreational purposes is, honestly, peripheral to the topic of this particular article. I’m certainly not. But he had a quote that gets brought up a lot when discussing reforms or changes, and it’s relevant to the discussion. Here’s the relevant portion, yanked shamelessly from Wikipedia:

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Or, to put it much more simply: If you want to get rid of something, you need to understand why it was there in the first place.

Why do you need TWO lightsabers? ONE is plenty!

Systems in an MMO do not arrive from nowhere. If an MMO features content that can be cleared in 30 minutes or so barring unusual circumstances, this did not happen by accident, nor was it programmed by developers in a fugue state who could recall nothing before or after completion. It was added into the game for a reason and with a specific purpose. And until you can understand what that purpose was, you can’t argue against it.

That doesn’t mean “developers know better than you do,” specifically. There are a lot of systems in place in live MMOs that are, in fact, bad ideas. But before you can say that you have to understand  how we got here, keeping in mind that sometimes the answer is “well, we kept making incremental changes to tweak things and now we’re here.”

A good example of that is World of Warcraft’s class design pre-Legion and, sadly, where it seems to be headed all over again now. Why did, say, Enhancement Shaman work the way it did? Because the developers had a coherent picture for the spec in Wrath of the Lich King, and over time made sequential and comprehensible changes to reduce off-spec tools or simplify the sometimes overly complex rotation. And it worked at that goal, but it also left the spec as being only really good for one thing and with a lot of its “signature” abilities feeling lackluster.

Why do dungeons in Final Fantasy XIV take about half an hour to clear with a fairly straightforward path? Because the designers experimented with longer and more difficult formats, but they found that the content worked best when it was something you could reliably do with limited free time via the existing systems. The result were systems designed to encourage you to get into dungeons without having to take too much of your time, and subsequent systems have clearly reinforced that. All of this has been designed to make most players want to do dungeons on a regular basis.

Why does story content in Star Wars: The Old Republic tend to largely be the same for both factions at this point? Because voice acting is expensive and writing points of divergence for two factions, many of which can affect the other side, can be a bit of a minefield.

You can argue that the above, for example, is not a good enough reason for things to be the way they are. You might even be right! But until you can find a way to discuss those points and the reasons for that decision, you don’t have a leg to stand on. You’re arguing about the results without discussing the causes leading to those results.

This is a better joke to keep alive anyhow, quite frankly.

So let’s go back to that first question. What was WoW’s dual badge system meant to address? It was a reaction to a problem that had cropped up in The Burning Crusade with Karazhan. Even as you had access to better gear via the same badges thanks to the late-game badge vendors, there was only one tier of badge. This meant that it was really easy to farm Karazhan with gear that was far better than you needed, then spend those badges to further gear, and thus break the overall curve.

Having two types of badges meant that the better gear could be locked behind the rarer badges, available through daily Heroic runs or harder raids, while easier and more plentiful sources rewarded the “lesser” badge. It also meant that you could scale up over time, so someone who hoarded the early badge wouldn’t be able to just buy through new gear when the next vendor came out.

This isn’t to say that the system didn’t have its own problems. But it feels like as we’ve moved forward in that game’s history, we’ve had a lot of fixes designed to just tear down the metaphorical fence without understanding why it was there in the first place. “It’s hard to get around this fence,” goes the argument, and so it comes down even when the fence did, in fact, still serve a purpose.

Obviously, designers need to understand why systems are in place within a game before removing it. This is especially important in games with developer turnover; some projects (FFXIV springs to mind) still have the same people working on them, so if anyone wants to know why a fence is there they can just ask the person who put the fence there. But it’s also important for people who just like talking about games.

Trusts are pretty much necessary weasels.

There’s a trope on TV Tropes called Necessary Weasels. The point of the trope is that sometimes, something might be unrealistic, but it might still be important to a work, even if you can point out flaws as a result of that trope. So while you can point out that it doesn’t make much sense for an action hero to be able to slow-motion kick the snot out of ten guys with guns in a fight, the whole point is that fun dance of a fight; it’s a necessary weasel. It’s cool to watch.

Similarly, basically any system in MMOs will have its up sides and down sides. If you turn off open PvP in Ultima Online, for example, you will make the world safer and less dynamic for players. You will also enable a whole lot of people to play the game without fear of getting ganked whilst harvesting lumber. And that loss of dynamism might very well be a necessary weasel, a fault that isn’t worth complaining about because it makes for a better overall experience.

So before you complain about a system, make sure you understand why it’s there. Sure, it might be a bad system that shouldn’t be in place and it is no longer serving its purpose. But sometimes it’s a fence made out of weasels.

…that analogy got away from me there. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to make that comparison; it isn’t serving its purpose.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

Next week, let’s talk about Ted Turner and the Evade Bug of FFVI!

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