WoW Factor: When your MMO design is hooked on a feeling


To start this off, I want you to summon up a feeling. I want you think back to the first time you can remember getting a gift from someone that you really wanted. Picture that moment when you remember unwrapping the gift and holding it in your hands, the best and most shining moment of not being able to believe your good fortune at what you were just gifted. For me, the biggest moment in memory is receiving Final Fantasy VI for the SNES when I was in high school, a game I had wanted for years and now could finally play in my home for myself!

Now, it’s important to note that the memory of that feeling is still strong despite the fact that I literally can play the game right now in my home via three different methods, and in the unlikely event I didn’t already have it, the game is available for less than 20 bucks on Steam right now. I bring all of this up because I realized the other day that there’s an aspect of World of Warcraft design that I haven’t really touched upon more than abstractly, and it ties directly into the memory of feeling vs. the reality of things.

Let’s start with a weird understanding: For all that a lot of people have claimed that Ion Hazzikostas, as a game director, is overly concerned with numbers and balance, the design team under his direction has involved a lot of talk about feelings. Legendaries were introduced bringing up the feeling of getting those rare epic drops when leveling through the vanilla game. Gearing is filled with the talk of the feeling around that perfect item showing up. “Feelings” are the watchword.

Now, I’ve talked before about how feelings don’t always line up with the reality; my memories of getting rare world epic drops in the original game are filed in the same place as my memories of warm interactions with my mother and times my dad impressed the family with his consistent sobriety. But the point remains that the goal is recreating these warm, positive feelings, and even if I never got a world epic, I can understand the feeling.

And let’s not pretend that there are not moments in WoW that have given me feelings I will carry with me for a lifetime. Feelings like downing Kel’thuzad in Naxxramas, getting the clutch last-second heal in a party to keep us going in a desperate situation, entering Howling Fjord or Hellfire Peninsula for the first time, flying for the first time… there are a lot of feelings tied up there! It is absolutely reasonable and understandable that you’d look at these feelings that led to a long commitment and dedication to the game and say, “Yes, let’s recreate those feelings.”

But this is why I brought up that original memory because I want you to take that memory… and put it in the here and now instead of the past.

Super, neat, somebody will be impressed.

If someone gave me a copy of Final Fantasy III for the Super Nintendo sealed and fresh, I would be surprised, but I would honestly look at it more as someone giving me a lot of money than someone giving me a beloved game. I already have the game in many, many different formats. It’s not something I feel the need to chase after. And quite frankly, it’s 2022; the era when it was hard to even find these things has passed.

See, herein lies the problem. It’d be wrong to say that feelings are ephemeral┬ábecause that implies a certain lack of substance and that is inherently incorrect. But feelings are tied inexorably to the moment, to circumstance, to so many things that are outside the realm of control of anyone in its totality. I touched on this last week when talking about people who used to raid and dropped off. Even if you could put me back in touch with all the same people and we had all evolved to still be friends like before, that’s not the same as saying you could recreate the alchemy that made that memorable.

And all of that is assuming this is something I want back in the first place.

Yes, it has always been a nice feeling when the item you want drops and you win the roll for it. But the counterpoint is that demolishing all the ways to work around the random chance involved means that my experience is going to be more frustrating than pleasant. By ensuring that my only way of getting what I want is by getting lucky, you’re not only gambling a lot on recreating the feeling of “ah, the shoulders I wanted dropped” but also making it more likely that my feeling will be closer to relief than joy.

Or to pull from another example from a couple weeks back, yes, it is a nice feeling to just get an item and say “this is an upgrade” instead of “this will be an upgrade when I reforge this stat, and socket it, and enchant it.” The turnaround time is much lesser if none of those things exists. But those things were added to remove the feeling of “well, the item dropped but it’s got some sub-optimal stuff, but I guess it’s an upgrade overall.”

The right time to do this was two decades ago.

Game design is, on some level, the art of maximizing good feelings. But sometimes you maximize good feelings by minimizing bad ones. And the problem is that feelings are, well, unique to each individual person. The moments that are my best memories in WoW are not necessarily the best memories for everyone associated with the game. Heck, if one of my best memories of the game was specifically beating out someone for a drop, one of my better feelings specifically came at the cost of someone else’s feelings.

I feel like looking at the game in this light provides a little more insight. If you think about some of the design choices as being about bringing back a good feeling, then it becomes almost sympathetic. You get why designers would bend over backwards and possibly even put up roadblocks to your personal enjoyment in the name of maximizing that feeling, chasing that high, trying to get that nice feeling back.

Yet the reality is that eventually, those feelings fade. The first time you get a lucky drop, you’re excited. The dozenth time, it’s no longer a rush of excitement, and in the worst case situations it’s actually a feeling of relief that you didn’t get stuck with something worse. You kind of wish you could just bank up currency and buy what you need because sure, it’s less exciting in theory, but in practice it removes chasing after luck and lets you just relax a bit more.

It’s why the game’s designers spent years adding in systems to mitigate these issues… which have been systematically ripped out and removed so that now we’re in a scenario where even the best feelings are kind of worse and veterans like me would really prefer to have a lot of those systems back. Sure, having to reforge and slot and enchant would be a bit annoying, but it’s not more annoying than the current system, and it at least feels like I have some control over things.

Would part of me like to have the old feelings back? Yes. But part of me would also like to be a teenager again and be excited over a video game that was hard to find at the time. I’m not getting that back, either.

Also, I’m not remotely sorry for getting Blue Swede stuck in your head from the title. (It’s not the original version of the song, either. The first version was by B. J. Thomas from 1968.)

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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