Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Heart's Desire

The one thing you can't trade for your heart's desire is your heart.
- Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory, 1996
I've been contemplating that Bujold quote for quite a while now. I'm a gamer. I have been a gamer since I was ten years old. Chess, board games, RPGs, computer games, MMOs. It is what I enjoy doing, what I enjoy thinking about it, as the last eight years on this blog attests. It is probably as close to a "heart" as I have.

And yet.

I'm contemplating a new project. A "heart's desire", if you will. But to be successful with it, I believe that I will have to give up gaming. I do not think I will be able to afford the time spent gaming, or especially the mental effort spent thinking about games. Perhaps someone else could balance the two, but I have never been good at balance.

Since it is the New Year, it seems like an appropriate time to try this new direction. To stop playing games and try something new.

Accordingly, this blog is going on indefinite hiatus.

Of course, the odds are likely that I'll get terribly bored and start posting again in a couple of weeks. But if I don't, well, it has been a fun ride. Kill some dragons for me.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Player Commendations in FFXIV

FFXIV introduced a new system to try and promote good behavior in groups. It is a new currency called Player Commendations. At the end of the run, you can give a give a commendation to whichever other player you want. You can use these commendations to buy various unique items.

I'm sure that you are all thinking of the myriad ways this system could be exploited. However, Square did something brilliant here.

You can only give give a commendation if you queued up for the run in the group finder by yourself!

If you queue up as part of a group, you can receive commendations, but you cannot give them out. So to get a commendation, you have to rely on the goodwill of a perfect stranger, someone who you may never see after the run. As well, you only get the commendations when you leave the instance, and you don't see who gave you the commendation.

I think it is an excellent system considering the balance of power in a group. The solo player has the least power in the group, but since she is the source of commendations, that is incentive to at least try to be nice.

As well, the solo player has no stake in who gets the commendation. She will never see these people again. So she may as well give the commendation to the person who deserves it.

Now, I don't know if it has made a large difference in the quality of groups. My groups are always nice, and mostly competent.[1] I've gotten 12 commendations so far. However a good deal of that comes from the fact that I play a tank, and so am pretty much the default option for commendations. I've tried to make an effort to recognize good dps. Judging by the forums, others are making the same effort.

I think the Player Commendation system in FFXIV is inspired. I hope that Square stays with the notion that solo players are the only source of commendations. In my view, that restriction is what really makes the system work.

[1] Except for Hard Mode Titan. No one expects success in Hard Mode Titan, so the overall mood is not very happy.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Ghostcrawler Legacy, Part III

The Ghostcrawler Legacy, Part I
The Ghostcrawler Legacy, Part II

Continuing on, here are more system changes that occurred during Ghostcrawler's tenure.

4. Tanks move from threat to active mitigation.

In Vanilla, a tank would gear for survival, but her basic gameplay would focus on generating threat. The tank essentially limited how much dps the damage dealers could put out. A good tank allowed the dps to go full bore. A poor tank throttled her dps players.

However, because the tank always geared for survival, a lot of tanks felt like they were fighting themselves. With the introduction of Vengeance, threat became less and less of an issue. Tank gameplay has shifted to "active mitigation" where the tank has more control over how much damage she takes. The tank takes generating sufficient threat for granted. Ironically, now that the focus is on active mitigation, many tanks now prefer dps stats on their armor.

Unlike a lot of the other changes, I am not certain that this was a good change. Threat linked the tank and the dps in a party. They had to be aware of each other, and interact with each other. I am not sure that "isolating" tanks from the rest of the party in this manner has been good for the game. I play a couple of other MMOs which are still threat-based (TOR and FFXIV), and I do think the basic group gameplay skeleton in those games is stronger than the current group dynamic in WoW, especially in small group dungeons. Using crowd control and focus fire is much more fun than simply AoEing everything down because the tank has infinite threat on all the mobs.

(Not to mention the beautiful tension between threat and mitigation that a tank finds in a game like TERA.)

As well, if the change was to make tanking more attractive to the general populace, well, I think it has failed on that level too.

5. Replacing talent trees with exclusive choices.

I'm not really sure if this idea originated from the WoW team, or if Blizzard as a whole came to a consensus. But pretty much across all their games, talent trees were replaced with a series of exclusive choices.

I think this is a stronger model for making interesting builds, especially at endgame. WoW does have some issues because the choices have to serve for all three specializations.

However, talent trees were a bit more interesting while leveling. There was a sense of being able to "build" your character which is missing in the current leveling game.

6. The gradual elimination of restrictions.

In my mind, this is the greatest weakness of Ghostcrawler as a designer. (Though I rather imagine that a lot of the players will disagree with me on this.) I do not think Ghostcrawler had a proper appreciation of restrictions, or he was unable to communicate the necessity of restrictions to the player base.

In a lot of ways, what you cannot do is more important that what you can do.

To take a simple example, for years paladins could not attack from range. You had to spec deep into the Holy tree to even get one range attack. This restriction made playing a paladin a fundamentally different experience than playing any other class. You had to learn about body-pulls. You coveted Linken's Boomerang.

There were things like this for every class. Hunters used to have a "dead zone" where they could not attack someone who was 5-8 yards away from them. Then the dead zone was removed, and an expansion later the close range restriction removed entirely.

Casters used to have a lot of trouble casting while moving. Then they got more and more instants and abilities to allow them to cast while moving. Healers got more and more AoE healing tools.

Restrictions chafe players. Players petition hard to have those restrictions removed. In my mind, one of the key jobs of a dev team is stand fast against this tendency, and stick with restrictions in the face of player opposition. Restrictions lead to interesting gameplay, and watering down these restrictions is not good for the long term health of the game.

In my view, this was the greatest failing of Ghostcrawler. He was unable or unwilling to insist upon the necessary restrictions on the players, and the gameplay in WoW did suffer for that.

Again, I am sure that a lot of players will disagree with me on this. Indeed if you look at any single restriction in isolation, I'm sure that an excellent case can be built for removing it. But I do not think the cumulative effect of removing all these restrictions has been good for the game.


By and large, Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street did an excellent job with WoW. I disagree with some of the changes made during his tenure, but I also heartily agree with others. As well, he set a new standard for communicating with the players, which was greatly appreciated.

I look forward to seeing his next game or project.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Ghostcrawler Legacy, Part II

In Part I, we looked at Ghostcrawler's interaction with the community. In this section we will look at Ghostcrawler's influence on the rules, how the rules of WoW changed when he was in charge. Now, Ghostcrawler isn't solely responsible for these changes, they were the work of the entire dev team. But he's the man with the title and the face, so he gets the responsibility.

I'm going to break this down into areas of major change and look at each separately.

1. Bring the player, not the class.

If there is any phrase Ghostcrawler will be remembered for--other than "Nerf Ret paladins. TO THE GROUND!"--it will be "bring the player, not the class". The basic idea is that a decent player could play any spec of any class that she found in group content and not be a total liability. She would not be forced into a specific spec at endgame.  For the most part, save the very edge of content (and even here it is much better than it was in the past), this has come true. Pretty much every spec is viable.

Perhaps it is difficult for newer players to understand what an enormous change this is. I have been a paladin since Vanilla. Back in Vanilla, there was only one choice for endgame paladins: you healed. Didn't matter what spec (and for some reason Kings was in the Ret tree), you couldn't tank or deal damage. Your job was to heal. And most of the time you didn't even wear plate. If you look back at the history of the blog, the first three years are railing at this restriction, and eventually coming to terms with it.

Now, paladins can tank if they want, or hit things with a giant two-handed hammer if they prefer. I still heal, but I choose to heal, and am not forced to heal. For this alone, I will always count "bring the player, not the class" to be huge success.

If you look at any modern MMO where classes can play multiple roles, there is an unstated assumption that the devs will at least try to make each role viable. I hold Ghostcrawler responsible for this change of attitude in the MMO industry.

Now, there are concerns with this idea. This, in conjunction with smaller raid sizes, has led to some homogenization among classes. Classes can no longer be as unique as they once were, for fear that those classes will not be present in the raid.

2. All specs and classes have an interesting rotation.

The paladin rotation in Vanilla was ... unique. You put up a Seal, cast Judgement to start the fight and recast another Seal. Then 30 seconds later, if the mob hadn't died to your auto-attacks, you could cast Judgement and re-Seal again. Other classes were all over the map. Some were crazy complex, others were very simple. I remember the days where the optimum Warlock rotation was to sacrifice your Demon and spam Shadow Bolt.

All modern specs have a rotation of at least moderate complexity now. Usually you use 3-5 spells, and there is a proc or resource you have to account for. The rotations are different enough to give the different specializations their own feel.  Each class is at least moderately interesting to play, and not as terribly simple as paladins used to be.

For the most part, this has been a good change. The only concern I would have is that sometimes it feels that each specialization is "too" unique. For example, did Destruction warlocks really need a second nuke in Incinerate? I have always thought that Shadow Bolt was good enough.

3. Current tier instead of progression.

Vanilla was built on the idea of progression. No matter when your guild was formed, you started in Molten Core, and moved up raid by raid. The problem with this was that often guilds got stuck on bosses and couldn't move on. Only a small minority of raiders saw all the content.

Starting in Wrath, WoW essentially moved to a "current tier" model. The raid that was released most recently was the tier that everyone did. Each raid was available in multiple difficulties, allowing groups of different ability levels to see the entire raid. As well, buffs or nerfs would often occur to keep groups from getting stuck.

I think in a lot of ways this is the most controversial of the changes during Ghostcrawler's tenure. Progression "feels right" in a way that is somewhat hard to articulate. There is this sense of "being on the path" that no longer exists in WoW. Right now, I'm playing FFXIV, which has a progression-style endgame. It feels "right" to be moving up slowly through the content, that each challenge is similar in difficulty to how it was at release.

But the truth is that it feels "right" up until the point where you get stuck. My first serious raiding guild shattered on Lady Vashj, and I've never forgotten that. The current endgame promises guilds that they can stick together. It promises that you don't have to make the choice between playing with friends or seeing content. In Vanilla/TBC, this was a very real and present concern for players.

To Be Continued

There are other changes that happened during Ghostcrawler's tenure. I also want to talk about what I think was his biggest failing or weakness in terms of rules systems. Hopefully this post won't take me another couple of weeks.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Ghostcrawler Legacy, Part I

Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street has announced that he is leaving Blizzard for a new opportunity. Ghostcrawler has been with Blizzard for about six years now, and was an important part of Blizzard's interaction with the community. This is a look back at Ghostcrawler's tenure.

Ghostcrawler essentially held two different jobs at Blizzard. He was the Lead Systems Designer and he also became the public "face" of the WoW dev team. Let's take a look at each aspect separately. In this post, we'll look at the public nature of Ghostcrawler's interaction with the player base.

Public "Face"

Before Ghostcrawler, devs really did not interact with the playerbase. All communications would go through the community managers or public relations people. As a result, communication was rare and somewhat opaque, tending not to be specific. Under Ghostcrawler, that changed. He was willing to talk specifics, to talk math with the theorycrafters, and outline Blizzard's reasoning on issues.

There were three primary mediums in which Ghostcrawler communicated. Each had their positives and negatives. This is how I saw each medium,.

In talking about each medium, I'm going to reference a technique called 5 Whys. In engineering circles, this concept is used to find root causes of problems. X happened. Why did X happen? Because A. Why did A happen? Because B. After asking Why about 5 times, you get to the true cause of the problem. I find that this technique explains a lot about what Ghostcrawler got right and got wrong when interacting with the player base.


The first place Ghostcrawler started posting was the WoW forums. He would jump in threads and answer questions, or provider the developers' point of view on certain topics.

I regard this era as the best era of communication with Ghostcrawler. His posts could go into detail, and convey some of the nuance and trade-offs. Because he was always responding to threads, his posts were always directly on point for player concerns.  In terms of the 5 Whys, I felt that these posts would often cover the second through fifth Whys, the root causes, and not just the surface cause. Almost every Ghostcrawler post was insightful and worth reading.

However, Ghostcrawler's presence warped the forums. People ceased to make threads to communicate with other players, and made threads to "bait" Ghostcrawler, to get him to respond. While Ghostcrawler's posts were always worth reading, the rest of the forum often became worse, and more noise than signal.

Dev Posts

After a while, Ghostcrawler gave up on the forums and tried writing regular columns on the WoW site. While these were okay, they suffered from two problems. First, Ghostcrawler wrote at too high a level. Essentially, he would talk about the problem and the first Why. But what we really cared about were the deeper Whys. Dev posts need a certain level of detail, of getting into the weeds and nitty-gritty. Ghostcrawler's dev posts often eschewed detail and talked about changes as high-level, obvious concepts.

The second problem was that Ghostcrawler was no longer responding to players. He was initiating the conversation. Thus he wrote posts on topics that no one really cared about, or that were obvious to the player base.

The best posts that Ghostcrawler wrote in this era were the ones where he went through the patch notes and explained the reasoning behind each change.

The lesson I would draw from this era is that dev communications are best when they start from concrete detail and examples, rather than high-level concepts. As well, they need to respond to player concerns, not what the devs think are player concerns.


After a while, Ghostcrawler moved to Twitter. Here, pretty much everything he posted was a response to a question from the community. But the major problem was that nothing he tweeted was worth reading!

I don't really fault Ghostcrawler for this. I think it was just a limitation of the medium. 140 characters are not enough to get into details, into nuance and trade-offs, to talk about the deeper Whys. Most of his responses are facile "first Why" responses.

In my mind, Twitter is a good medium for quick answers, to point to better sources, or to be snarky. It is not a good medium to try and convince people of things. You need long form writing to be able to do that.


Ghostcrawler created a new template for dev interaction with the player base. He showed that he could talk reasonably to us, to outline the devs' thoughts on issues, and that the players would respond favourably to this. He may not have been perfect ("Nerf Ret paladins TO THE GROUND!"), but he made talking about the game and changes far more insightful and interesting than they were previously.

Unfortunately, Ghostcrawler could never capture the same magic as his forum posts. His two other attempts, dev blogs and Twitter, did not work. In my opinion, they failed because he was unable to reach the proper level of detail, to delve into the 5 Whys of issues.