Monday, January 22, 2007

Evolution of a MMOG

I have been observing World of Warcraft as a social space for over a year.
I have found much to admire in terms of the game’s design and the player culture that has emerged. For those not familiar with WoW, these remarks won’t make much sense. But blogs are about whatever is on the blogger’s mind.

With the expansion (more content added to the existing game) I believe the designers diminished one rich aspect of social life in World of Warcraft. They demoted the great city of Ironforge to an auction house pit stop. Had they replaced Ironforge with a vibrant new social space in Outland, that would have been fine. Instead, Shattrath is a shopping mall gone bad. There is no natural gathering place. You are forced to choose between two opposing factions of the city. Since these factions are mostly about what gear you can work toward, there is no interesting narrative that justifies the fact that you will not always make the same choice as your guildmates and friends, hence you will not see them in Shattrath. Shattrath is simply a place to get business done as quickly as possible. While people would hang out conducting all sorts of activities in the space between the Auction House and Bank in Ironforge, there is no such space in Shattrath.

Furthermore, and it pains me to say this, Shattrath is populated by both Horde and Alliance! After slaying evil forces in deep dungeons, beating back ferocious beasts throughout the land, and encountering worthy opponents in the wilderness encampments of Azeroth, it was always nice to hearth back to Ironforge to be amongst one’s natural allies. Now the game is more focused on the repetitive quests, rep grinding, and so on. The designers believed that people would still go back to Ironforge for the Auction House, and made it easy to get there. What they missed was the diversity of tasks that kept people in Ironforge, giving them an excuse to mingle. It was a village with the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker.

I have much less experience on the Horde side, but Orgrimmar seemed to have a similar feel. It does not have the same gathering space Ironforge does, but there is an area with Auction House, Bank, and so on that was a focus of activity. I haven’t been there since the expansion but I expect it’s the same ghost town Ironforge is.

How can one get so worked up over a video game? Massively multiplayer games are a genuine social space in a world in which taverns, bars, hair salons, and all those other great spots simply do not have the same function they used to. I don’t think there is a one to one correspondence between online games and real world social spaces, but there is one important parallel, namely, a not-work social place for recreation and diversion. It is sad to see something that was working so well in the game messed up for no good reason. All the designers had to do was create a decent couple of capital cities in Outland. Perhaps they themselves had the same nostalgia for Ironforge I have, and they tried to preserve it, rather than having it become an abandoned ruin. It is, however, abandoned.

Just had to get that off my chest about Ironforge (*cries*).

More soon on what I love about Outland!! Outland is spectacular on many ways!

19 Comments:

Blogger Siah said...

I personally think that these web2.0 environments are like farms and we are all farmers. we work for free and we actually enjoy it. sometimes we enjoy it so much that we are willing to pay money to be able to work!

anyways I was looking for a PhD position in information engineering and I found your blog :) I have been involved in designing online courses for the university. and I am a Masters student in the university of Oklahoma, here is some of my old works and codes on my website (www.pitchup.com) may I send my resume? :)

Regards,
PS.have never asked for a PhD position on a blog post on MMRPG :)
I can also call you. my email address is faridani [at] gmail.com

3:12 AM  
Blogger Peter S Magnusson said...

You're spot on about Shattrath. But I think one of the reasons for the reorientation was technical; IF was a recurring performance problem for a lot of users, which kept marring the suspension of disbelief. The expansion revived a lot of old players, plus implied an added compute base for the new continent and instances, so they would have worsened the problem otherwise. But from a social space perspective, you're absolutely right.

Now, when's that promised new posting about Outland coming? Lol.

6:00 AM  
Blogger LindaX said...

You sly dog, you have an Allie toon? My main is Allie, and a gnome, so I understand the IF lament. Although, since the expansion I actually have run into a lot of friends posted up there to do enchants or unlock boxes, or perform other services. The decision to not put an AH or Bank in the Outlands may have suited the back story but it created a mess, compounded by the Scryer/Aldor division.

I have similar feelings about Molten Core/Blackrock, truth be known. I was in there the other day leveling mining on an alt and I felt all sentimiento. I recall my first venture in there. As I walked down the big chain over the molten, well, core, I typed, OMG this is so f'n LOTR! I grabbed the screenshot, which I still have on rotation in my screensavers. It was so magical and the scale so marvelously overpowering. I have yet to see something as impressive in Outlands (a close second would indeed be the sky in Hellfire).

I listened to the interview with the head designer at the German gaming conf. THey mentioned some refreshing and updating of "old world" content. This contradicts what they said at Blizzcon, but hey, it's okay to change your mind. In fact, I really dig that they do. Good design is, after all, an iterative process or conversation with the user, eh? >grin<

link to interview with Jeff Kaplan at GC2007...note the Irvine shirt. LOL.

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Blogger KarlKFI said...

Most of the motivation for change was technical. IF and Shatt are on different servers, which spreads out the load of AH'ing in IF and banking/shopping/hearthing in Shatt. Plus Shatt is a hub with portals to take you to all the major cities. So you're still connected, you just need to do a little walking. Also, with the trade channel extending to all major cities you can do business from any major city with a large audience. And the limited general channel cuts down on the insane rambling you have to filter through. Sure it's a social space, but how much intelligent conversation really goes on in general chat? Most of the players I know either disable it or put it in a chat window that isn't always visible.

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9:08 AM  
Blogger Z-lot said...

Shattrah will hopefully be more or less forgotten when the Northrend expansion comes out... though I must say that just as Blizzard never fails to deliver a more than satisfactory gaming experience it also succeeds in making disappointing mid to long-term decisions over and over again. It is they who would need some solid research data.

9:57 AM  
Blogger CCMCornell said...

I have found that since Outlands has opened, Stormwind has become more populated than Ironforge and I'm guessing it's for two reasons:

1. If you have to go to Azeroth via the Shattrath portals and risk getting stuck in the old world with your hearthstone possibly on cooldown, Stormwind is the closest city to the Dark Portal back to Outlands.

2. Stormwind is the closest city to Karazhan, the entry-level raid instance.

Prior to Burning Crusade, I think similar reasons made Ironforge more popular.

1. Ironforge is the closest city to Menethil Harbor, which has boats to the other continent Kalimdor. In travel time, it was faster to get to most places in Kalimdor via this route even than from Darnassus to the far north, even though it is just off of Kalimdor's coast, especially to Silithus, the zone containing 2 end-game raid instances, AQ20 and AQ40.

2. Ironforge is the closest capital to Blackrock Mountain, site of popular 5-man instances BRD, LBRS, 10-man instance UBRS and full raid instances Molten Core (entry level) and Blackwing Lair. It is also close to the Plaguelands, which contains high level questing areas, dungeons Scholomance and Stratholme as well as the raid Naxxramas.

I'm in the beta testing for Wrath of the Lich King, having obtained a key through Wowinterface.com's program for obtaining keys for current addon authors. You can check out some stuff I wrote at http://ccmcornellwlk.blogspot.com

So far, Dalaran, the capital city of Northrend, is fairly complete with banks, vendors, profession trainers but still lacks an auction house. There are portals for each faction to Shattrath and each of their respective capital cities.

I believe Shattrath may still attract some traffic in that, if you later decide to go to an old capital, you still may via Shattrath's own portals. Also, shoulder enchants from Aldors and Scryers will still be the only enhancements for shoulders until level 80 raiding (it seems they will be lootable drops from bosses). Finally, the blood elf in the World's End Tavern who teleports you to Caverns of Time (if you are revered with the Keepers of Time) in Tanaris will still be useful to reach Lich King's only addition to the old world, the Caverns of Time Stratholme instance.

I also wanted to mention that I came across your site after reading an article about your work investigating WoW players in China and, in particular, why addon authoring is more present in the US than there, despite the population differences in player base. Having recently begun authoring, I think I may have a guess as to a contributing factor.

Documentation on the WoW flavor of the Lua scripting language and the game's API seems to be purely pieced together from the community of mostly English speaking addon authors. Further, frameworks like Ace (wowace.com), which make authoring new addons easier, are supported by a English speaking community as well. These communities usually maintain contact via forums on mod sites, the official forums or, in the case of Wowace, even on IRC.

This language barrier must make it more difficult for non-native speakers of English to undertake the messy, largely unguided task of learning how to write addons. Note, that the European fan base does also have its share of authors. Perhaps, Europeans, compared to Chinese players, are more likely to have learned English and has helped them join the author community.

Other guesses would include: racial backlash from the gold farmer stereotype discouraging Chinese players from socializing with many WoW communities. Racial epithets and mocking use of Chinese words or Chinese-English pidgin seem to be common among many chat trolls both in-game and on the web.

Delay in new content reaching China. So far, expansions and major patches with new content reach China much later than the US and EU. New content and changes to the API of the user interface that spawn fixes and innovation in mod design are already "old" by the time the Chinese players finally get to see them. By then, necessary changes and opportunities for useful additions to mods will have been implemented and tested, leaving little incentive for Chinese players. Recently, Blizzard has stated that with Wrath of the Lich King, the Chinese market will get new content as soon or nearly as soon as the rest of the world.

Ease of Localization: using frameworks like Wowace makes localizing addons very simple, requiring no real coding from native speakers of the various languages, just simple translations of displayed text.

Lastly, I would also wonder if this same lack of addon authoring is prevalent in the Russian player base. Russian players, who used to have to play on the same circuit of servers as the "EU", seemed to have been singled out by the rest of the European player community, perhaps by language or other cultural reasons. Blizzard now has a separate Russian branded operation, with a different account system, web site, support system and client program, all in Russian. I wonder if the Russian player base is similarly divided by culture from the western world's players as is with the Chinese in aspects of addon authoring, socializing via web forums, etc. and also how that compares with past difficulties of identity of Russians as Europeans.

6:29 AM  
Blogger Jessica said...

As a female player, I love the social aspect of the game. I loved bumping into friends (RL and in-game) in Ironforge as we were leveling up. However, Shat seems to have its own social culture that centers around a number of locations (banks, griffin, World's End Tavern, etc.). Last night I had the opportunity to experience one of the "concerts" in the tavern. Probably close to 50 people gathered to dance, run around, and watch L70ETC perform one of their songs. It definitely made Shat seem like a more social place. Check it out if you haven't seen it!

Also, it's great that you're doing research on wow. I'm a cognitive psychologist who studies language. I found your blog after seeing the article about your NSF grant on the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Congrats! I've had a project in mind about the "vent voice" that everyone uses for a long time. Glad to know there's a good precedent for this research!

4:52 PM  
Blogger Kenny said...

I understand that you don't usually play Horde, so I thought I'd put my 2cp in about your Orgrimmar comment.

From what I've seen, ORG hasn't lost anyone. It seems as busy as ever, possibly even moreso with the way my mid-line PC slows down as I approach the bank/AH area of town. The Undercity (Forsaken) does seem less populated than I remember it before the expansion, but I hadn't really thought of it until I read your blog. It makes sense now that I think of it in that perspective. To be thorough, Thunder Bluff (Tauren) has never really been a very busy place to be, even though it does seem to favor certain professions such as mining and blacksmithing. (The forge is mere feet from the AH as opposed to in ORG or UC where it is across town)

I recently read about your upcoming work researching WoW and some of its social implications. I sincerely applaud your efforts. I've always wanted to find a way to incorporate one of my favorite activites into something useful, (other than a nice bout of escapism) and I wish you the best of luck.

Sincerely,

K.Warren

P.S. Alliance sucks. ;)
P.P.S. Need a "research assistant"?

7:16 AM  
Blogger a nice little man said...

That elevator between Aldor and Scryer tiers - the stern warning and explosive expulsion from Shattrath are a good purgative.

A thought about your investication of WoW add-in usage...
In China everyone shares secrets and "cheats" - possibly on such a massive scale that legal add-ons are pedestrian in comparison?

Also, a possible factor is, accessing from one computer all the time vs. from multiple computers....

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