Sunday, May 31, 2009


Design vision and player wishes often seem to clash. Sometimes it's a minor difference in opinion/expectation, sometimes it's fairly significant. And that can be seen in some of the heated posts on game forums. Players wonder why the heck we don't just give them what they want. Some designers will take the "cuz I said so" approach while some will take the "there's a good reason, just trust me" approach.

I personally believe in the honest, open dialog approach. But I understand why so many don't. Frankly, players chew you up regardless so it's reasonable to ask yourself: why bother?

As designers, we have to strive not to fall into the: I'm gonna do this because I can, I got the power and because that's what "I" like. Which is somewhat paradoxical as I also consider designers to be artists and I do not believe an artist should bastardize his art to please others. He should be true to his vision and let others discover its beauty.

But then, we're not truly artists, are we? I guess we're more like scriptwriters on a TV series who have this (hopefully) awesome story to deliver in so many episodes. Sometimes we need to adjust some characters or events based on our audience's response. I remember thinking that when I watched the cast interviews of Battle Star Galactica before the finale. They were saying how Anders (who was only meant to have a small 2-3 episode role) was turned into a main character in reaction to the fans hating him so much for hooking up with Kara (I hated him for it too and ended up loving him by the end of the series!).

Like scriptwriters, we cater to an audience that gives almost instant feedback throughout the creation process. Sometimes our response will go against their wishes and still work out for the best (as in BSG) and sometimes it won't. But invariably, the fans' voices will influence the direction we take, sometimes steering us in a different path than originally intended.

In UO, I've been facing that same dilemma, namely with the gardeners. My vision as a designer, which was also shared by many on the team, isn't shared by quite a few of the gardeners. A bug introduced a way for players to grow some plants in hues we didn't want them because frankly they are an eye sore. While the bug was quickly fixed, we decided not to revert the few "ugly plants" they had obtained during the bug, since we figured that would be the end of it. But turns out players remained with a number of colored seeds that allow them to keep growing those horrors and cross-pollinating them, which makes me cringe beyond words.

So I looked into the code on how to revert all existing ones and neuter the remaining offensive seeds. Once I found the solution, I went to the gardeners forums to make a post telling them the fix for these abominations was on its way! But what I found was a really long thread of excited players sharing their experiments results, building up cross-pollination charts, giving each other tips on how to achieve certain hues and certain breeds. It was like watching a bunch of kids in a toy store. I had this strange mix of major annoyance, amusement and pride at how nice the kids were playing with each other.

And I just didn't have the heart to post... After thinking about it long and hard, I just reverted the "fix". It's still a hard to swallow humble pie but if it doesn't create imbalances and is just a matter of personal preferences, sometimes it's ok to let design vision take the backseat.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Beta Testing

Now that ours is but a few days away, people are getting even antsier and desperately hoping to make it into the beta. I know the feeling all too well. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Everyone and their brother is spamming me for beta code requests. Some I know will rock it, others... not so sure. So the question is: are you truly beta test material?

Beta is a critical phase for us. This is when months and months (sometimes years) of hard work finally get handed over to players for thorough scrutiny. This is when we first find out if this ship will sink or sail, if it has holes and where is the water leaking in from. Water we don't see because we're too busy on the deck. Unless our testers take the time to explore every nook and cranny in the hold, there is a chance we'll only realize we're sinking once we're way far in high seas.

The truth is a lot of people sign up for beta not to test but just to quench their curiosity and for bragging rights. I can't blame them either, because I've done it too. But knowing that the number of codes issued is limited, it is important for people who sign up to understand that as much as we try to account for every silly things players will do during normal gameplay, we can't catch them all. Testing is what allows for the issues from such behavior to be addressed. If new skills or systems are way overpowered or unbalancing, if the UI isn't overly friendly, if some of the content needs some tweaking, beta is the time to bring it up so they can be fixed before the game ships. There's no damage in a closed environment, once it hits production shards, it's a whole different story.

So if you sign up, try stuff and use that feedback form or the in-game bug report feature. Nobody expects you to do as thorough a job as a QA Tester would. We only expect you to play as you normally would and bring up what doesn't work. Nobody knows better than you how you enjoy your specific game style. If you mainly play a crafter, we don't expect PvP feedback from you, but we sure as hell would like to know if the new content works for you. Don't get a code just to let it rot.

Beta testers have tremendous power. There is no other time you will have the Devs as attentive to your every word as during beta. It doesn't mean you will get everything you want (especially if your request would require massive system changes), but now is your best chance of having a real impact. I beta tested a few games myself and often heard people just randomly bitch about this or that but when asked if they submitted a bug they would just say "why bother?", which blew my mind. Or some would say things like "I'm sure someone else already reported it". Do not worry about submitting duplicates. Never assume someone already submitted, and don't just sulk about what you don't like.

Beta isn't about you finding out whether or not you like the new expansion. It isn't about status. It isn't about just hanging out with the Devs and participating in the few events. It's about making sure the expansion will launch as smoothly as possible. So don't take up the place of someone who would truly help polish the game through this critical phase. If you sign up and get a code (for UO or any other game), please log on often, play and use the heck out of the bug report feature.

PS: details and ways to replicate is a Dev's best friend. :)

Sunday, May 10, 2009


So as most of you now, we're currently in the last miles of our next, more than long overdue, UO expansion. I'm not going to discuss the details of that specific expansion here, but I wanted to share my thoughts about expansions in general and my issues with them; namely the fact that they make old content obsolete and raise even higher the barrier to entry for new players.

One of my biggest problem with expansions is that they usually rhyme with new lands and dungeons. How is that bad? Because new expansion doesn't mean new players. While they tend to bring a certain amount of new players, they're usually aimed towards player retention, so your currently bored players have something new to chew on. The influx of new players isn't significant enough to offset the exodus of existing players into the new areas.

In a game like UO, it just means that perfectly good systems are going to waste. The impact on our players is fairly minimal. But in a level-based game like WoW though, it's a different story. Looking at their latest expansion (which had quite a few really good things in it), I couldn't help but sigh. Another skill cap increase, meaning a noobie will have 80 levels to grind through before they can start playing with high level friends. New uber epic gear for level 80s to strive for, meaning once noobie manages level 80, his gear will still be too weaksauce to play with his friends in the cool instances. Even though they reshuffled the points required so that it takes you the same amount of time to reach 80 as it would have taken to reach 70 before the expansion, there are less people around to help you level or do those low level instances because everyone is in the new lands. So noobie is once again SOL.

Then look at resources and crafting materials. All the new cool recipes involve new mats that drop only on the new mobs. Why ever bother with old mobs then, especially since the old recipes using the old mats are trash compared to the new ones? Granted, they have the whole Achievements system put in, which seems to be all the rage these days with every game (I'll make a blog entry specifically about that at some point). But that only makes you go back once then never again.

I took WoW as an example because most people know it or of it and it covers the majority of the issues I find with expansions. But UO has had many of the same issues through its various expansion. I'm not against adding new lands. I just find that generally it's not done in the most efficient way. You shouldn't sabotage your own previous designs by making it useless or obsolete. I don't think the size of the playground matters as much as the quality and the number of the things you can do in it. I don't believe in having perfectly fine game systems just go to waste because we're pushing players towards the new shinies.

If an old system has become a little stale, give it a bit of a face lift. Even if you create new areas, mobs and resources, you should tie them to the old lands. Your new uber recipe should use mats from both worlds. You don't need to create an entire new dungeon with mostly useless critters just to have a new epic encounter. You could simply add cool new features to an existing dungeon that will grant you access to a new boss, and only create a new area in that dungeon for the boss' lair.

Instead of spending months/years building new regions so old ones can be abandoned, I would rather see all that time devoted to making new art assets and new badass creatures. As a player who just bought an expansion, when I receive the new "sword of ultimate pwnage", I want to see a wicked cool sword with awesome effects. Not the same old, rehued rename lame sword I've been using the past 5 years. Having a sexy looking new world populated with the same tired renamed/rehued creatures with a bit more stats is quite the turn off.

I was discussing this with a friend who said he wants new lands with an expansion because he gets tired of seeing the old places. My response to him was that if he's having fun, he won't care whether the land is old or new. Players aren't a grasshoppers swarm that needs to move from region to region once all sustenance has been drained out of it. It is our job as designers to make sure food doesn't run out in any given region. Period.

In my humble opinion, expansions should be about optimizing existing content and adding more content that will enhance player's experience. Not creating new areas to be cannibalized.