I had plans to write something about World of Warcraft, and how it has changed, but whenever I came to work on it, it seemed too much like a gripe-fest, and I didn’t want to sound whiny. So as a warning, this might sound whiny or stupid. But writing that last post about AV kicked something off in me, I think, and I’m feeling more ready to talk about this. If you’re reading this blog, a blog about game design, it’s likely that you’ve played WoW at some point. I’ve played WoW quite a bit, mostly in vanilla and BC, pretty much skipping over Wrath, and coming back briefly near the end of Cata. I haven’t played since Mists was released. So that’s where I’m coming from, what my experiential background here is.
WoW has changed quite a lot over the years, and I think it’s changed following a fairly logical progression. Moreover, I think that the design decisions Blizzard has made echo a presiding, contemporary conception of good game design. In short, this presiding conception says that a good game is one with a compelling “core mechanic” and a no-nonsense backdrop for it. No other element of the game should distract from the core mechanic, and in general every element should enhance the experience of that mechanic in some way. I think this is a pretty well argued-for position in the critical literature. And I would say it’s probably pretty clear that most of the alterations made to WoW (excluding the addition of new content) have followed this prescription. In general, zones and quests have been streamlined, as has the process of learning a new character. Dungeon-finder, cross-realm battleground queues that you can sign up for from anywhere, the examples abound—WoW has become a more convenient, cleaner version of its original self.
Unfortunately, with this cleaning-up, part of what made WoW appealing to me has been lost. Yes, the grit made WoW complicated, weird, and difficult (in a way not commonly applied to games—difficult like an obstinate child, not difficult like a rubik’s cube), but the grit also made WoW WoW. Whenever any change is made to an artwork, something is lost and something is gained. And what I’m not sure the contemporary game design culture-at-large understands is that inconvenience can be a game design tool in itself, and while dirty systems and clean systems have different aesthetics, one is not necessarily better than the other.
Designers frequently take dirty systems and clean them up, or remove the inconveniences that might get in the way of players experience of the central mechanic of the game. I think that this makes a lot of sense, and it has been a design aesthetic that I’ve subscribed to as well. My current project is certainly designed with simplicity and elegance in mind, and with little thought to whether complications or inconsistencies might benefit it in any way. But I think that while in general this prescription is likely a good idea, it should be understood that that is not always the case. Many games benefit from the awkwardness or inelegance in their rules, and when cleaned up too much become too easy (easy like cheesy action movies are easy). And while many WoW players like the newer, cleaner WoW better, I think that some probably agree with me that a good deal of the original aesthetic has been lost.
Some (maybe) less controversial examples of games that benefit from inelegant rules are D&D (many players mourned the loss of complexity in the move to 4e), and, in fact, tabletop hobby games in general. I have limited experience here, but I know that my own attraction to D&D and Warhammer, the two hobby games I’ve been most invested in over my life, stemmed largely from the hugeness and hard-to-approach but easy-to-get-lost-in specificities of their rulebooks. If games like these were boiled down to the cleanest implementations of their most central mechanic, certainly they would feel very different. They would probably appeal to a larger audience, but this new audience would probably contain a small subset of the original audience. That is, many people who loved what they were would despair at their change. I think in general the response to this kind of people has been a sort of shaming. These people who leave games when the games are cleaned up are seen as bitter old-timers, who just can’t see that the game is getting better. But the game isn’t necessarily getting better, it’s changing. Those people aren’t silly for liking the feel of dirtier systems, for regretting the disposal of inconveniences. Those people just have different tastes. They just want different things out of games. And designers should understand that, so that they can make their decisions with a better awareness of their implications.
Another takeaway here is that if removing inconveniences doesn’t necessarily improve a game, but rather changes it, then there may be a time during the conception of a game when the addition of inconveniences might change the game in a desired way. Inconvenience can be viewed as a real game design tool. Think for instance of Bennett Foddy’s QWOP (or its successor CLOP, or especially GIRP)—without the ridiculous inconvenience of their input mechanisms, these games would lose almost all of their charm. Or think about Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls—not how challenging they are, but the sheer inconvenience of being knocked down to lower health upon death, of having to re-traverse the entire level between each attempt at a boss. These things are real inconveniences, and get in the way of a player’s experience of the boss itself; they require players to re-enact combats that eventually become quite rote, in what would normally be considered pretty awful game design. But take these things away, and that strange, attractive cruelty of the game is diminished. Some of what makes the game special is taken away. I’m sure I’m missing a lot of other obvious examples, but the point is there. There is a subset of games that get aesthetic power from their inconveniences, and it would be a shame if the refinement of game design as a discipline resulted in the loss of that subset.
This has all probably been said before, but I guess I think it needs to be said more, since I haven’t come across this point of view very often. I hope I haven’t rambled or ranted too much. And I hope if you’ve got objections to the things I’ve argued here that you’ll voice them.
October 29, 2012
Editor's Note: AV post mentioned in the first paragraph was boring and specific so not preserved here but available in its original home on tumblr.