Monday, October 13, 2008


This weekend I had the good fortune of being one of more than fifteen thousand or so attendees at the third Blizzard Entertainment Convention (Blizzcon) held in Anaheim, California. It was my first time and though it wasn't exactly what I expected, I had a great time. There were tournaments, cosplayers, and carnival style contests, but the event focused on showing off Blizzard's three upcoming releases: World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, Diablo III, and Starcraft II.

Each of these titles were showcased and discussed during panels that covered gameplay, lore, and art. Designers and developers hosted these sessions themselves. Though much of the event felt like a giant marketing ploy, the panelists sounded sincere and extremely knowledgeable. Unfortunately, it would have been impossible to attend all the discussions, and seeing as I have no particular affinity to Starcraft (I was never any good at it), I skipped out on all the panels pertaining to that franchise. My apologies to any RTS fans out there. I promise I'll try Starcraft 2 when the beta comes out and give you my thoughts. The panels I did attend dished out some interesting aspects of game design, some of which I'll talk about now.

Wrath of the Lich King

Beside the games I am currently playing that are viewable to the right of this post, there are a few others I play pretty regularly but don't bother to list. These include some casual DS games, Team Fortress 2, and until recently, World of Warcraft. Oddly enough, I was probably the only one at Blizzcon with a canceled account. I've already reserved Lich King however, and I'll be reactivating my WoW account this week. I mention this is to emphasize my excitment in hearing Blizzard's Lead Level Designer Cory Stockton and Lead Game Designer Tom Chilton address existing concerns in their latest expansion.

The first issue is the fact a huge number of players were never able to see some end-game content. There are some 25-man raids in that are so difficult or require such astounding gear that the vast majority of players will never see them. They could make these encounters easier, but then the WoW forums would ignite with rants from all the "hardcore" players about making the game too easy. Blizzard's solution? Implement a tiered difficulty system. In Lich King all 25-man dungeons can also be done with just 10 individuals, the encounter is adjusted to be easier accordingly. They will also be easing player participation by implementing "dual specializations" in the near future.

Tom Chilton also gave an example of another raid encounter in which players could choose the difficulty of the boss by killing, or not killing, three drakes before starting the battle. Hardcore players have a harder time but are given a greater award, while the more casual players can still experience end-game content. If you don't play an MMO it may be hard to conceptualize how this might effect the game. Maybe it's premature, but I think this is going to be huge. I am a big fan of allowing players to experience content how they wish.

Diablo III

Jay Wilson, Lead Game Director for Diablo III hosted a fantastic panel, showed off a sweet t-shirt, and was incredibly responsive and detailed during the Q&A segment. You can tell the man is passionate about his creation and the Diablo universe. The most interesting topic of discussion to me concerned meshing the story of Diablo III with their system of randomized content.

Diablo III encourages replay. They've done so by emphasizing each classes unique characteristics and play style, creating NPC interactions that differ depending on the character you choose to play, and by randomizing your experiences each time. According to Wilson, this means everything. Items, enemies, and dungeons will all be randomly created. Unfortunately, this tactic tends to create dungeons that feel removed from the story, created from generic parts. Their solution is to incorporate scripted story driven events and established environments in the cycle of randomized content. The game is far from completion, so this game mechanic is still in the works. Chopping up narrative elements could result in a haphazard experience, but along with Jay Wilson, I'm eager to see how it plays out.

Last Thoughts

The dichotomy between the over-the-top, pay-per-view style canned dialogue used to market their games and the development team panels was striking. The game designers and artists are so much more knowledgeable and informed about the game, and so much more sincere and impassioned, than the pre -packaged marketing tactics used to grab our attention. I didn't expect them to understand so thoroughly the relationship between game mechanics, user interface, lore, and player. Some very diverse teams, working on different aspects of development, seem to be genuinely interested in creating a cohesive game that they and their fans can enjoy.

This was the first time I felt developers were fundamentally a part of the gaming community. It was a welcome feeling in an environment where gamers don't have many interactions with creators, and I'd love to see more of it. These designers seem to have the fans in mind during the entire creative process. I'm curious to know why there isn't a greater discourse between ourselves and the people who make the games we love. The monetary driven nature of game marketing, I fear, is the culprit. Blizzcon merged the two and has, so far, come out with a winning formula.


  1. You touched on a good point that I would like to expand upon

    "They've done so by emphasizing each classes unique characteristics and play style, creating NPC interactions that differ depending on the character you choose to play, and by randomizing your experiences each time. According to Wilson, this means everything. Items, enemies, and dungeons will all be randomly created. Unfortunately, this tactic tends to create dungeons that feel removed from the story, created from generic parts. Their solution is to incorporate scripted story driven events and established environments in the cycle of randomized content"

    This was done in Hellgate:London as well and it was supposed to be a huge innovation. After playing through Hellgate a bit I am not convinced today's gamer wants this.

    Take WoW for example (I know it is so easy to use WoW but hear me out). No experiences in WoW are randomly generated but that does not stop anybody from running the same instance over and over again. This is because they make the experience so immersive and fun. You can see the craftsmanship in every inch and you know how much careful planning went into it. It is art. When you use random dungeons you completely loose that feeling. In Hellgate I could almost see the "tile sets" repeating over and over. Ohh here is that crater that used to be over here. This time it turns left instead of right. It actually took me out of the game because going somewhere that is familiar is much more immersive. What if every time you left your house, the way to work had changed? Would that make the morning commute less boring?

    I just think that randomizing the levels is a cheap way of saying something has replay value. I like playing halo or WoW or any game where you can really see what good level design is.


  2. @ Andrew

    I think I agree with you on this one. I can't shake the feeling that randomized content is just a gimmick to get you to play the game again. You'd think the game would be good enough to play again without needing an extra incentive. Also, without a consistent world environment, everything could feel less "real". Randomized content could actually be counter-immersive. I think Blizzard's decision to go the way of randomly generated content might just be the nature of the hack & slash dungeon crawling game they are creating. Maybe we are done with Diablo-style games?

  3. @ Jorge

    If I may be so bold to comment, I think there is no such thing as being 'done' with Diablo style games. Anything that has a solid enough fan base will take a lot to die out.

    As for the random generating of dungeons, I find it quite nice. It takes the monotomy of seeing the same thing over and over again.

    Hellgate, IMO did a very lousy job at the random generating.The only reason I finished that game was to smack Sydonai. Dungeons that constantly change keeps the challenge up, keeping gamers at the edge of their seats. Maybe the problem lies in the genre of where the dungeons are randomly generated.

    For example, when I played Chocobo's Dungeon, I found the randomly generated places to be painfully amusing. I finished it anyway. Diablo II was no exception (although it was definitely easier to handle). Maybe 1st person shooters are not meant to go hand in hand with random dungeons?

  4. @ David

    You are absolutely right. It will take a lot more than our concerns to stymie Diablo's loving hordes. I'll be playing the game myself and I'm sure I'll enjoy it immensely.

    That being said, I'm still cautious about randomized content. You're right it can break up monotonous repetition, but if you have repetitive environments that require artificial means of keeping people interested, you've already messed up. I can imagine randomization done well, but I can't shake the feeling developers are taking an easy way out at the cost of an immersive and integrated storyline.

  5. @Andrew and Jorge

    Try seeing it in a different manner, as in randomized content and storyline separately.

    I don't see how randomized content can really effect a good storyline the way you two are seeing it.
    The way I see it, a storyline is best viewed as a whole, and the adventure of going through it being the challenges of the randomized content.

    When I played Hellgate, I acknowledge that the randomized dungeon was a pain, as they could have done a far better job at it. But then again, I went through it anyway, because I wanted to kill the final boss and see the story end. It was quite a good story, very apocalyptic. I don't see human kind ever rising up and repopulating London from that kind of damage. If a story really is good, it outweighs things that players find annoying and makes it worth the effort to actually play it.

    IMHO, the issue with randomized content is how well they pull it off so it doesn't look like walls taped together, with craters that look alike shifting positions (as is evident in Hellgate).

    As for replay value, I think that the player will decide if a game has replay value or not. Even creators cannot determine if a game has it (they can try as hard, though). It's all a matter of opinion to the gamer, no?

    Of course, I'm in no way denying that games like Halo (can't afford to play WOW) are good. I'm just making my stand on randomized content.

    After going through this, I'm even more impatient for D3 and SC2.

  6. @ David

    Maybe you've hit on it in your first statement. I don't think game content should be separate from story, if it feels removed from the storyline something is being done incorrectly. Diablo 3 can still be a great game, but if plot and play are divergent then it isn't reading the full potential of the medium.

  7. Wow, you guys really went to town on this one.

    My two cents:

    I think randomized content is fun for people who are truly in love with the mechanics of a game and wish that they could always use said mechanics in a somewhat spontaneous way. Stories are finite things that take a long time to create and so randomized maps allow players who really dig the nuts and bolts of the game to continue to test their skills in somewhat novel situations.

    I do think that randomized content is hard to pull off well in a narrative sense, but for someone who just craves more opportunities to put their pure gameplay skills to the test, it's a great thing.