Evaluating The Worth Of A Mechanic

Unless you’ve got no interest in MMORPGs (which begs the question why you’re reading this blog) or have been living in some sort of lesser developed country during wartime, you’ll probably have heard about the changes coming to World of Warcraft with the Cataclysm expansion later on in the year. I’ve been following the drips of information we’ve been getting with great interest, not because I particularly care about my favourite class getting some exciting new ability but rather because I find it fascinating to see how the Blizzard developers are evaluating the worth of mechanics and abilities.

For instance, Cataclysm is going to see changes to the stat system, the spell ranking system, spells and abilities and numerous classes. For me, one of the most curious changes though is the removal of weapon skill levels. From Cataclysm onwards, you will no longer need to level up proficiency with a particular weapon type after you’ve learnt it, a huge departure from the traditions of MMORPGs.

I can understand why this change is happening as skilling up weapons is a chore and redundant once the player hits the max level. Blizzard’s stance seems to be that things that become mindless, mandatory tasks are unnecessary and that everything should be more interactive or based on situational decisions. Weapon skill levels certainly don’t fit into those boxes and are something which is usually neglected by the player, only to be remembered when they realise they want to use an axe and haven’t trained up the skill up for it for the past 10 levels.

Still, I’m sad to see the mechanic go because there was a reason for it existing which has now become lost. The idea behind skills in RPGs is to mimic the process us humans go through when acquiring a new talent: learning. Unless you’re Lex Luthor most people take time to learn new skills and do so through constant and consistent use and repetition. Boil it down to it’s basics and we often pick up new abilities in real life by doing something over and over until it becomes part of our long term or muscle memory. Obviously this definition of learning is a huge understatement about the cognitive process that we go through and my layman interpretation doesn’t even begin to stratch the surface of it but I’m sure you’re getting my gist.

The fact is, this type skill acquisition in RPGs and MMORPGs is there as a way of representing and mimicking the real life process of learning and, as a result, it makes our characters more human. By anthropomorphizing our binary avatars we can feel a deeper connection to them and become more immersed in the game.

Here’s a great nostalgic example of what I mean. Did you ever play Everquest? Remember the language system in the game? I don’t know about you but I loved the concept of having unique racial languages and being able to speak Elvish if I was, well, an Elf (don’t worry, it’s just an example, I never played an Elf). I also remember being impressed meeting high level characters who could speak anicent languages like Dragon, plus we got to create that iconic scene from the 13th Warrior by learning an entire new language during a single night around a campfire.

Evaluating the worth of a mechanic sure is tricky and I admire how Blizzard, and every games designer/developer, approaches it. Does a mechanic have any real worth or is just a redundant facility with no use? Is something merely an overhang from MMORPG tradition or is it providing a valuable sense of immersion? These are tough choices and can have quite large impact on the gameplay experience.

-Gordon

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13 Comments

  1. Klepsacovic says:

    Some amount of annoyance/repetition is needed to create a sense of realism. The monotony of it all. But when there is too much, then we cease to see the realism and only see the annoyance. The threshold is different for everyone, so it’s almost impossible to strike the perfect balance of world (annoyance) vs. game (not being annoyed). I’m using the world annoyance loosely, since we shouldn’t be annoyed, but perhaps… impatient?

  2. Sharon says:

    There are a lot of odd little mechanics in WoW, and I’m not really surprised to see them go, though I do wonder what that means for the complexity of the game. WoW already seems to suffer from a lack of things to do once you hit max level and gear up for raids. I hope they add loads of content to make up for how they’re streamlining everything. It makes me a bit sad. If they’re doing away with skilling up weapons, they’ll have to do away with the achievements for getting to 400 weapon skill. Earning that knuckle-sandwich achievement made me laugh. I beat up a lot of gargoyles for that one!

    I’ve never understood why WoW even had languages. They appear to serve no purpose, other than to annoy raid leaders (at least that’s the only purpose they ever served in my guild… hehe) In EQ and EQ2, there are still quest chains that you can’t finish and quests that you can even get unless you speak the language of the quest giver!

    • Gordon says:

      I expect languages in WoW to go pretty soon and yeah, it’s going to annoy a lot of people who worked up all of the weapon skills and then suddenly lose their achievement for it! I can understand why Blizzard are removing the mechanic but I’m still sad to see it go.

  3. Stabs says:

    Weapon skill would have been utterly horrible in Cataclysm.

    In Vanilla people grouped a lot while leveling but the social network was restricted to your server. Tanks actively avoided getting a reputation as a crappy tank.

    Later people leveled solo. Tanks could skill up new weapons in their own time.

    In Cataclysm people will level up in LFD. If weapon skill stayed it would be a constant nightmare of “oops lost aggro, one handed axe 44/250″.

    Weapon skill is a bad mechanic for a game expecting players to level in cross-server dungeons.

  4. Longasc says:

    This is how my Warlock trained unarmed and dagger:
    Fighting Servants of Razelikh (?) near the Black Gate for ages.
    This was not really fun. It was also not necessary or useful. I still did it.

    So Blizzard did right to change the system.

    Does this mean the concept itself is wrong? No. Just was not well implemented.
    Warcraft just does not have a skillpoint based progression system like Ultima Online, the mechanic was always annoying. For example, there was once a great blue axe in the Scarlet Monastery, but my Paladin had of course only Maces and Swords trained. Just annoying!

    I think if players had to pick between different weapons specializations and abilities, this would give the game some more depth.
    Right now they are removing mechanics and simplifying to the point of boredom through simplicity. OK, it is not that bad yet. But they are heading down a dangerous path.

    The challenge would be to balance various weapons and skills, with advantages and tradeoffs. Sure, some min/maxers would claim to or really find the “best” pvp or raid skill set, but it would be exciting.

    The danger is that all weapons become equal, more and more stats and mechancs get removed. Then you end up with a simplified Diablo clone, a game that funnily struggled to overcome the extremely simple core by adding set bonuses and all that.

    Simplification is good, but if you can figure out with one look that this weapon is better or worse than yours and do not have to think about benefits or drawbacks of its stats, it gets boring.

    Even worse, “gearscore” becomes the ultimate measure of everything. A complex and engaging system would make this artificial counting of item rarity and stat values totally worthless!

    They like to call it “Quality of Life” improvements. The revamp of the Warlock soul shards is for sure a huge quality of life improvement for Warlocks.

    It was also good to simplify cooking recipes – but they need to stop this a bit. They will remove more and more items and item interaction and skills and in the end players will end up with ever more buttons to press on their hotkey bar.

    In the end you get a fantasy combat simulator. But that’s the problem: MMO combat mechanics are shallow. Every other genre has probably more engaging combat than MMOs. They need to take care they do not remove too much and reduce the game to solo monster clobbering and group dungeon runs. But apparently it is too late and left to future MMOs to introduce some more player – item – world interaction and stuff to do besides fighting and following the stupid quest orders of various NPCs.

  5. kaozz says:

    Why I never enjoyed leveling weapon skills I think removing them took some depth out of the game. If anything make them skill up much faster OR able to skill up on the training dummy. Some sense of accomplishment at least. Everything now is instant, instant groups, instant weapon skills and so on. What do we really have to show for our characters anymore? Instance after instance later… some shiny new gear that will be replaced in a month. I just feel the game has lost most of it’s depth, I really miss the direction it started in.

    • Gordon says:

      It’s a slippery slope for sure. Once a few mechanics start getting simplified then the others start to seem too complex in comparison. For instance, if there’s no weapon skill levels why bother with weapon skills at all? I mean, it’s just a “chore” trip around a few cities now to makes sure you pick them all up. Might as well abolish them completely as they have no meaning at all.

  6. kaozz says:

    Why= While.Obviously I can’t spell…

  7. Tesh says:

    “Blizzard’s stance seems to be that things that become mindless, mandatory tasks are unnecessary and that everything should be more interactive or based on situational decisions.”

    If only that were true. That mindset would change a lot of the game. Unfortunately, this is little more than a token offering. The whole game is based on mindless repetition. As Spinks notes, such is like knitting; useless but somehow soothing… so it’s not really all that terrible. Even so, embracing such a mindset that would get rid of mindless, mandatory tasks would be to change the very heart of the game.

    That would be a good thing, but it’s not happening.

    • Gordon says:

      Yeah, they aren’t doing anything radical to change the game but I think they honestly believe in that motto. The problem is that they don’t want to take any massive risks that might upset the majority of the player base so changes will be small and slight.

  8. dresdor says:

    I just want a mainstream MMO where using a skill (any skill or ability) improves the skill slowly over time. Entropia Universe was the only MMO I’ve seen to do it “right” and it is, unfortunately, a massive casino. I agree that this is a sad thing to be removed from WoW

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