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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Paragon Lost

Or better yet Eliot. Why not be concise and clear, so that those who play your game understand the whys of something? Instead of being glib and basically insulting with the response of “When you know why the fence was put up come back”.

It’s simply much better to be as clear and communicative as possible instead of not answering questions. We humans don’t understand information always in the same sort of way. Raise children and you’ll get a quick lesson in just how differently they understand things between each other and between you and them.

Often most of the frustration and umbrage from players of mmos is due to this unclear communication. The wall of silence, or “it’s working as intended”, or worse, “We know better then you”. You didn’t even cover this whole very very important issue. I gotta say you repeatedly amuse and yet frustrate me with how you go about your thoughts in articles Eliot. I’m never sure what to think honestly.

Andy McAdams
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Andy McAdams

“When you know why the fence was put up come back”.

It’s the difference between being given a fish and being taught how to fish. I do this a lot — I work on a product with lots of “well this is silly, why is this here?” moments, and I spent a lot of my time understanding myself what the problem it was trying to solve.

It’s the difference between “knowing” a thing, and “understanding” a thing. It’s not glib or insulting, it’s forcing you to step outside of your experience to consider why it was put in the first place. Unsurprisingly, it also tends to be a very humbling experience. It’s easy to point out all the ways you think something is wrong when you are just told, it’s much harder to do that when you have to follow the path yourself.

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If for nothing else, Blizzard’s bumbling with WoW sure has fueled lot of interesting think pieces from you.

Matt Comstock

Great article. Developers and Gamers alike should take heed. Fresh on my mind is FO76, as that is what I’m currently playing, and the player critique about stash weight limit, the atom shop, and to a lesser degree the CAMP building capacity.

At first, I was rather upset about the stash weight limit, it seemed way too low (and it probably was and still is). However, the purpose of that “fence” was linked to server stability. Once I got used to the 400 limit (bulking/selling, not storing excessive weaponry/ammo), all was honky dory, but I wouldn’t have said no to more space. Now we have a 600 limit and I’ve not really needed more than 500-550 — yet people still call out for more. Admittedly, I still wouldn’t say no to more stash space, but I’d much rather have better server stability. Many will argue Bethesda needs to figure out how to do both — I can’t disagree. But, until we can eat our cake and have it too, I’d prefer to keep the 600 limit, or even go back to 400, as I’d rather play the game with less disconnects/crashes than have unlimited stash capacity and not be able to play due to frequent disconnects/crashes.

I imagine a similar rationale applies to the CAMP building capacity: server stability. Again, I would love to have more room to build, but not at the cost of more lag/disconnects/crashes. Until they address the server stability issues, I will not ask them to tear down that “fence.”

As to the atom shop. Many people cry out at its very existence. Others cry out over the cost of atoms and the cost of items in the shop. Its purpose? Revenue stream for a persistent online game, expected to be up and running for some time, but without a subscription. Without a revenue stream, it will become more difficult for Bethesda to devote resources to fixing/increasing server stability and therefore be able to comfortably increase the stash limit. Regarding its existence– I tend to shrug off the opponents arguments as they are, currently, selling only vanity items, and I can get atoms through playing the game without having to purchase more. As to the cost of items, I tend to agree they are overpriced. I understand the purpose of the cash shop, and my critique is that they should reduce the cost of the items — which will likely encourage more purchases, which will garner more revenue, which will result in more resources to fix and expand the game.

We must live in the reality that faces us. And to those who say FO 76 should have been released bug free with rock solid server stability and unlimited stash capacity, I cannot disagree. However, that is not our reality. And so we must understand the systems in place, and intelligently request fixes/changes, and then be patient.

Matt Redding

I have definitely seen some pointless fences though. For instance at launch Rift had “planar” gear you could get in each zone. Each zone just had gear for 1 slot in 2 rarities and getting them required getting the specific currency from doing zone events in that zone (each had 2 lesser and 2 greater events that were tied to these currencies). It might have made sense if people leveled at the rate they did in OG Everquest and FFXI, but at launch 90% of the playerbase steamrolled through all the zones and hit the level 50 cap within the first month, many within 2 weeks. The zone events were triggered in part by player population, so anyone not in the mass rush to 50 hardly saw any events at all, making the currency unobtainable. Even after they changed the trigger, the population wasn’t there to DO the events so it was still hard to get.

They ended up unifying the currency in each zone (which made half the items immediately obsolete) and having to work at tweaking the events to scale…somewhat. I think, and it’s been years so I may have this wrong, they eventually gave up and converted all the zone event currency to something uniform so if you ran around and did them you could collect the armor. But, ultimately, it was leveling gear.

Overall that kind of describes my experience with RIFT. Lots of fun ideas but they’d only half think out implementation. And they’d constantly second guess themselves and reverse positions. Like, when Storm Legion launched initially you’d have to get through part of the story and into a certain zone and then you could journey to the new capital. Two weeks in they decided to just put in a shortcut so you could just warp there and unlock it. But the gate to getting there had previously been tied to the expansion’s main story. Ugh that game still frustrates me years later.


I always haul that GK Chesterton quote out when I’m talking serious politics.

Matthew Yetter

I really had to laugh when I saw the second picture from the bottom. As I recall, that was a WoW April Fool’s Day joke. Now another MMO has actually (kind of) done it:

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Tobasco da Gama

It’s weasels all the way down.


No way, posting with no idea what your talking about is much more fun.

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I understand why you made that comparison though. So now I’m suggesting we get rid of it or change it into something else. Maybe with two alternate versions that the reader can choose from, depending on their reading level. Later on, we can amalgamate them and say it’s for clarity, and hope nobody notices how much more complex it’s become.

Great article Eliot, loved it! Here’s hoping we can squeeze more Vague Patch Notes out of your brain. :)