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.
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.
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.