Design Challenges – Gameplay-Oriented Thought vs. Systems Design

One of the big takeaways I had from revisiting an old design document I made in 2005 was that there is a variation in approach that to me at least, came with age.

When I was a kid, designing games (“designing” in the loosest possible sense, haha) was about gameplay. The mode of thought was to answer a simple, yet tough question – “would this be fun?”

As I grew older, evidenced by the documents laid out in that post, the design shifted to numbers and systems. These things are among the first that popped into my head – nothing else came forward as immediately as those ideas.

Now, before I spend most of the post setting one of these modalities above the other, I want to be clear in stating that both are necessary to ensure an actually fun game. Having a fun idea for a gameplay beat doesn’t ensure that the development following it will make it fun, and designing great systems doesn’t mean they’ll work out to be a great game. You really need a mix of both disciplines, working in tandem, to get a truly great game. Gameplay-focused designers tend to be great visionaries but need that backup to make sure that the under-the-hood behavior of the software delivers the vision. Systems-based designers can figure out and map a plan to all sorts of mechanics to ensure that the experience progresses according to a plan, but they need those creative types to anchor the systems to something fun.

However, when a game has an overabundance of one type of designer, it tends to show in the finished product, and that is the lens I am taking with this post today. Neither is inherently bad, but without balance, the end product will suffer.

WoW as a game has, in many ways, shifted its focus from launch through to today, albeit in a slow fashion. At launch, WoW had very few gameplay systems one interacted with – you had experience gain, weapon skills, profession gameplay, and well…that was about it. You could argue loot acquisition was a system as well, and let’s make the case that sure, it is. If we add those up, that totals to 4 systems. Not a bad number, overall, and many of these drop off fairly quickly. Once you reach level cap, experience no longer matters, likewise for weapon skills and profession skill points. With few professions having interactions like shuffles or transmutes at this point in time, the number of different gameplay interactions it required to craft a given item was relatively small. Typically, you needed to gather a list of things, and then used those things to make an item. There were exceptions, but relatively few. Loot systems were the only point of major system interaction in most player’s lives after reaching caps on level and skills, and so much of the early social gameplay dynamic was simple – determining who needed a given drop of loot, if they were entitled to it within the social parameters of the given group, and tracking these rewards over time to ensure that the social dynamic remained as free of drama as possible. (There is a reason that early WoW humor is full of DKP jokes, after all.)

This was it – outside of later additions of limited daily questing and the earliest currencies (usually more for reputation than anything else), the amount of systems-friction in early WoW was tiny, and if anything, was more of a social-friction/group dynamic.

Rather than recap the history of systems by expansion here, let’s talk about why more was added. Generally, Blizzard added new systems to the game to fill some perceived gap. Heroic (then Mythic) dungeons were added to fulfill a desire for more difficult small group content. Scenarios were added to offer more casual, smaller-group content. Mythic raiding allowed Blizzard to design more cutting-edge fights with tighter tuning. Mythic Keystone dungeons offer those cutting-edge small groups chances to get great gear and to push an increasing level of challenge.

The thing is that many systems added to WoW have sought to add more stuff for players to do and have fun with. I think, in many cases, their heart is in the right place – to start with. Mythic Plus wants to offer you the ability to constantly run dungeons with an escalating sense of challenge and reward, which is, I think, unambiguously good. Mythic raiding sought to limit guild rosters for the hardest content to allow for better tuning and balancing in order to eliminate the pissing contest over 10 versus 25 player, while also better integrating flexible raid sizing for the lower difficulties, a feat it has accomplished.

However, many systems seek to solve what I would call system problems. Take the case of the Heart of Azeroth. In the recent press tour Ion Hazzikostas has done, one of the things he discussed is how the Heart of Azeroth was designed with the idea of the Artifact in mind, but aimed to solve what he described as the front-loading of the Artifacts. To his mind, and the team as a whole, the fact that Artifacts offered a lower level of engagement towards the end of the experience with a lot of early-expansion gameplay was a bad thing, despite the fact that no player feedback was really pushing this point. This statement, taken at face value, is a bad thing Blizzard has done – nobody complained that Artifacts were more engaging in the beginning, but yet Blizzard saw fit to “fix” that problem. Yet, through a design-focused lens, what can we derive from that statement? The system, from a purely abstract design perspective, was in-fact broken, because the pacing of excitement events was not distributed well. If I am thinking of Artifacts as a system, completely devoid of gameplay context, this is how I would see it too. The pacing is “wrong” because as the content starts to wear thin, the Artifact didn’t offer as many moments of power.

However, this is divorced of all context, and analyzes the artifact solely as a system with no concern for how it links to anything else, lest you think I was defending this one. The “problem” wasn’t a problem at all, because the front-loading was FUN. It was the nicest part of the artifact, in fact – the idea that between the lower point cost of those first traits and the scaling of Artifact Knowledge meant that you had a lot of engagement early on with the weapon. It increased your affinity for the weapon and made it feel integral early on, and then it slowly peeled away to a maintenance mode to allow you to focus on gameplay. It was logical, exciting, and increased retention – it was the right move from both a gameplay perspective and a business perspective. If Artifacts were less front-loaded, I would bet you a million dollars that Legion would be far less well-received.

The Heart of Azeroth, from a pure systems perspective, is “better” designed – it uses better-spaced progression events to keep you (theoretically) engaged, while using the declining requirements in AP needed via Artifact Knowledge 2.0 to allow new players, alts, and returning players to keep relatively on-target. The pacing of rewards is tailored to ensure that the pacing of necklace level delivers steady power increases via gear, with casual gear maintaining a pace that befits a casual player, and raid gear requiring you to stretch a little more. If you look at the average Heart of Azeroth level among active players, there’s a band that pretty much everyone playing actively fits into, and I would wager without even looking at the hard data that the variance from top to bottom is within single-digit levels for players at similar levels of activity, with it probably being +/-2 neck levels for players in similar activity bands. This makes it “better” from a pure, context-devoid system perspective – players with similar play profiles stay closer, power pacing is even and keeps a slow-drip of new gameplay modifiers, and the catchup mechanism means someone starting at 120 today can catch up to the curve of everyone else playing in a similar fashion to them in a short amount of time.

The problem here is that while Artifacts were imperfectly designed but fun, the Heart of Azeroth is better designed as a system but that strips all the enjoyment out. The pacing of power rewards means that odds are good when you gain a neck level, the pop up is just a nuisance that means you gained 2 item levels to a low-value piece of jewelry. The lack of front-loading means players have little engagement with it as they level and maintain that level of engagement throughout the experience. You don’t interact with it at any point to the scale you interacted with the Artifact in the beginning of Legion, and if you played more than one spec, you’d interact with multiple Artifacts, each with a similar heavy-frontload, one that increased with Artifact Knowledge to a degree that made alt-spec weapons gain even more powers in those first moments. Each initial interaction with the Artifact matters and offers a power increase, where outside of that initial power activation with Magni at the start of BfA, you will never interact with the Heart much, if at all. Artifacts also had Relics, which made you look at the trait tree on the weapon and reminded you of the power, and the Relics interacted with the powers in ways that reinforced gameplay. Sure, the relics weren’t good or even necessarily fun either, but they all reinforced the common message – the Artifact was *important* and was worthy of consideration.

The Heart of Azeroth never clears that bar, instead being a number you reference at a glance when acquiring a new piece of gear. In fact, if you play as I am at this point, you may never even really look or heavily consider the HoA at all, opting instead to let the warning of new traits be your sole guidance to interact with the system, an interaction that occurs about once every two or three weeks for me.

This recent press tour actually explains so much to me about how it is possible that BfA was meeting the team’s expectations in gameplay while falling short for players. From a systems perspective, the Heart of Azeroth is better – it has consistent pacing, gameplay-modifying powers in a smaller dose than the artifact, and offers a constant reward and goal. Islands should be popular because they reinforce this reward mechanism – do Islands to slightly increase the pace of your next reward delivery from the necklace.

However, from a gameplay perspective, it falls completely flat, because you start the expansion with no gameplay hook for the necklace, it never becomes important, and you never interact with it more than once every week or so. Sure, at this point, leveling an alt means the neck picks up more power and the leveling Azerite gear rapidly adds traits, but this is where the second problem hits – you can only ever reach 9 traits on early gear sets, and in current raid gear, you max out at 12. Adding new gear that offers more power means losing traits – a difficult trade-off to make. Imagine if you added a relic to the Artifact weapon and doing so required losing a point in your tree? It would feel awful, and that is a big part of the Azerite system. Gaining power means losing traits, which feels bad, and you can never grow beyond the constraints of the system, which locks you to a fixed number of traits that only grows with new gear and added rings. Sure, 8.2 aims to fix the losing traits dilemma, but imagine if Blizzard kept their original design for all of BfA – would we need a level 120 neck by 8.3 just to avoid a loss of power?

In focusing on the raw system absent of any other information, Blizzard has designed a system that is more evenly-paced, at the cost of all of the fun of the Artifact system, and the splash damage this had on Islands and other modes of play has been heavy. I would argue that if the Heart of Azeroth was front-loaded, I would still be playing seriously instead of contemplating cancelling my subscription – AP would feel good, like it did in Legion, with more interactions, pure gains of power, and a sense of journey and progression that the HoA lacks. Because the HoA isn’t rewarding in the same way, it removes the incentive to play from damn near everything that rewards AP, because gaining AP doesn’t feel like anything near a reward.

This is, to me, the key failing of the current Blizzard team. I’ve seen blogs lately use the terminology that BfA was the best-designed WoW expansion “on paper” and I think I agree a lot with that sentiment. Ultimately, sure, in abstract, the ideas at the core of the expansion are decent and interesting. However, when actually built into a play experience, there is just too much friction for too little reward. What’s especially funny is that even compared to Legion, this expansion rains loot from the sky – it has never been easier to gear a stable of alts, and yet, because everything around that interaction is system-first, gameplay second, the end result is this dullness that everything has.

As I’ve upgraded Azerite pieces from Normal Dazar’Alor to Heroic, I’ve lost powers. If I do a good chunk of emissary quests and the weekly Island table bar, I can get about a week ahead of my friends in the Azerite curve. If I do Mythic Plus every week, I can reach a slightly higher item level than I would from Heroic raiding alone. None of these alone are compelling rewards when the system aims to ease power grinding every week, gear grinding every 6 months, and ultimately makes my current progression mostly meaningless. The system works in the way it is designed – I always have a progression path available to more power, but because of this, there are several points in the journey where doing more is only going to be made meaningless a few months later. This is the journey of an MMO, true, but WoW has rarely made the work done in early patches feel like a fool’s errand like BfA has.

At the high end? Well, the key concern I hear from a lot of higher-end players doing Mythic Raiding is that the gear grind never really ends. It is no longer possible to get BiS – which is perhaps a topic for another time, but again, let’s discuss the underlying systems that led to this. Warforging and Titanforging are contentious to this day and will likely remain contentious for a long time, but at the core, they are actually well-designed systems. On paper, that is.

WF/TF aims to take a simple problem – a lacking sense of reward from lower-end content, and it fixes it by giving all content a chance to be more rewarding. It allows low end players a rare event of excitement with a loot drop, and it allows top-end players to further gain power past the point where they normally would. It makes gear more interesting, as the loot link is no longer sufficient for saying if a piece is good or not, and it has a pool of random affixes that aren’t all item level. Great!

In practice, however, at every level of raiding, it removes the gear ceiling, meaning that the grind is perpetual. If I’m an LFR player who values the stats on my gear, I want more stuff to Titanforge and I know that the point at which I stop collecting more loot is not truly the endpoint – I could try harder to get more drops with higher and higher item level. As a Heroic raider, I want progressively higher pieces to drop until my character is kitted in the best possible gear, but even once my average item level is a nice, round 400, there’s still going to be wiggle-room for that to be higher, to a point where a boss I hate that drops good gear for me may not be worth skipping. What choice do I make – skip the boss that I hate and lose out on a possible upgrade, or do that boss, fail to get the upgrade, and be mad? Sure, the third event is the happiest conclusion – do the boss I hate, get the best possible piece of that upgrade, titanforged to max item level and a socket + tertiary stat, and be happy – but on the scale, there are a dozen different versions of that event with gradually worse versions of the item.

The system, on paper, is supposed to make me happier – I get more loot, and the “rarity” is now the high titanforge. Sure, the theory is sound, but it also fundamentally misunderstands what many of us play for – a defined journey with an endpoint.

The thing about all of these examples is that they are also largely subjective – someone might really like that the HoA is hands-off management, and may have also believed that the Artifacts were too gameplay-heavy. A fair number of folks enjoy Islands divorced from the Azerite system, and play them just for a taste of quick combat and exploration. Some people love the slot machine of loot and don’t mind that they can’t get their BiS in the truest sense, because to them, titanforges are a bonus – and these are all absolutely valid perspectives as well!

However, despite my design example, I really like the gameplay focus that earlier expansions had, and the more bare and exposed the systems become, the less I like the finished product.

It seems like, from looking around, I’m certainly not the only one.

One thought on “Design Challenges – Gameplay-Oriented Thought vs. Systems Design

  1. I think this is why gamers often ask something like “don’t they play their own game?”.

    I’d wager that every MMO ever had stuff in it that might have looked good on paper but just wasn’t fun when actually played. It’s probably inevitable.

    Thus the big question is always how developers react when their players point that stuff out to them. To me Blizzard seems to handle it worse than most. They’ve become so used to people loving everything they do during their early years that they’ve become convinced that they can’t do wrong and every idea they have is pure gold.

    Liked by 1 person

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