It can be difficult to discuss MMO design in the complete abstract — there are just too many variables — so today I am going to deconstruct and analyze a specific design in an existing game. My target: Noblegarden, a small holiday event in World of Warcraft. First we will look at how the event is designed, then reverse engineer its probable goals and look at how it meets those goals. Finally, we’ll take a look at how some modifications to the event might improve it — or not!
Noblegarden is the in-game representation of Easter in the World of Warcraft. It lasts only one day and has only one activity: finding Brightly Colored Eggs!
- The event starts at 12:01am (server time) on Easter day and lasts exactly 24 hours.
- During the event, Brightly Colored Eggs spawn in the racial homelands (i.e. the newbie zones).
- These eggs are essentially tiny treasure chests. Players who open them receive a token amount of money and either candy or special holiday clothing.
- Each egg has a small chance of containing either a White Tuxedo Shirt (~1%) or Black Tuxedo Pants (~1%), both of which are identical in appearance to tuxedo clothing produced via the tailoring profession, or an Elegant Dress (~0.5%). The Elegant Dress can be obtained no other way; it is essentially a peach-colored version of the wedding dress.
Of course we can’t really know what the designers’ goals were in creating this content, but we can make some pretty good guesses by examining what they implemented.
First off, Noblegarden was intended to be a fairly small, low-key event without a lot of hoopla. According to the WoW event calendar, Noblegarden is one of only two major events that last only a single day — and the other is New Year’s Eve, which is arguably part of the Feast of Winter Veil. In addition, there are no city decorations for Noblegarden, nor any town crier-style NPCs to let the players know what’s up. And this makes sense: a goodly number of WoW players will likely be spending Easter with family, not in-game. Although Blizzard wants to commemorate the holiday, they don’t want to make players who are spending time with family feel like they are missing out.
Secondly, Noblegarden is an event aimed squarely at new and low level characters. The Brightly Colored Eggs spawn in newbie (level 1-10) zones; the money inside is a token amount for a new character but literally only pennies (worthless, even) to a higher-level character; and the candy inside is equivalent to the lowest level food — again, worthless to anyone higher level.
Based on these factors, it seems likely that new players were intended to run across this content as they played through the low-level areas in a normal fashion. Noblegarden seems to have been planned as a low-key bonus for newer characters, an enjoyable but not especially involved reflection of a popular real-life holiday (albeit without the religious trappings).
Unfortunately, our plans as designers last only until they meet the players. In this case, the actual behavior of players during Noblegarden differs rather a lot from what we might hope for from the presumed goals.
- The holiday clothing — and most especially the Elegant Dress — is the real draw in this event. Even though it has no gameplay stats, its rarity ensures a high price on the Auction House — and that means that lots of players of all levels converge on the newbie areas to look for it, whether or not they want it themselves.
- The eggs are widely scattered. Based on my personal experiences and polling random players I ran across, it seems that a player with a mount in an area that is not too overpopulated can find about 20 eggs an hour. But the count goes way down when the area becomes heavily populated with egg-seekers. The more seekers in the area, the less happy — and less polite! — any of them will be.
- The eggs are really hard to find. They can only be identified visually — they can’t be selected with the keyboard and they don’t show up on the minimap. They are small, and although they are bright blue they don’t stand out terribly well against WoW’s over-saturated palette. And for some reason the eggs do not use WoW’s normal quest-item sparkles to draw your attention. To add insult to injury, many of them are also hidden behind bushes.
- Because of these factors, the event quickly devolves into a race for eggs. A low-level character will generally be at a disadvantage: they are unlikely to have any speed-increasing abilities, and they will also have to spend more time dealing with hostile creatures in the area. For higher level characters, it’s all about quick eyes and memorizing the locations where you’ve seen eggs before.
Some low level characters do indeed participate in this event in the manner that we imagined: they find a couple of eggs, enjoy their candy, and go on their merry way. But for many players, the lure of the dress is too strong. They spend hours running in circles desperate to find one more egg. The competition, the difficulty of finding eggs, and the low drop rate of interesting rewards all combine to frustrate many players, and the clear divide between “winning” (finding a dress) and “losing” (finding nothing but candy) makes it easy to feel that you have wasted hours of your life for absolutely no reward except a nasty eye-strain headache.
Since a dress shows up in only one of 200 eggs, the majority of people hunting dresses won’t find one even if they hunt eggs for eight solid hours — and will consequently feel like they “lost” at the event.
So let’s pretend for a moment that we are able to make some modifications to the Noblegarden content in order to help it better suit our goals as we described them above. It’s clear that the event as it stands isn’t quite there, but what can we do?
Well, it’s the rare and unique Elegant Dress (and, to a lesser extent, the other holiday clothing) that’s causing all the trouble. So let’s remove the clothing! Without these rewards, there is no reason for higher level characters to flood into the newbie zones in search of eggs. And if they don’t go searching for eggs, they won’t get frustrated. Problem solved! Let’s go home!
First off, the content is already in the live game. Removing these rewards after the players have already seen them and come to desire them is a bad idea. Secondly … well, let’s face it. The clothing rewards are the only thing that give this event a little flair. While the goal of a laid-back, newbie-friendly event is a good one, a laid-back, newbie-friendly even that also has a little something for higher level characters is even better.
So if we don’t remove the clothing, maybe we lower the demand for it. We could provide an alternative method of getting a dress that looks just like this one, even if it’s named differently (as is already true for the tuxedo shirt and pants). We could just add a tailoring recipe for a similar dress. That will remove a lot of the impetus for grinding the eggs (unless we do something silly and make the new dress recipe too hard to get!). But it won’t remove the demand for all players since some of them will still insist on the original, and it won’t solve the frustration issues for the ones that remain. Plus, we risk taking the sparkle out of our Noblegarden event. We don’t want to spoil the feel of the event we’ve already built, we just want to make it less frustrating.
Of course, we could remove the clothing from the eggs, then add a Noblegarden vendor who sells recipes for making the clothing. This would allow the creation of the clothing all through the year, but still make it Noblegarden-special. The Festival clothing from the Lunar Festival works in a similar fashion. But that leaves the whole looking-for-eggs thing somewhat pointless, and since that’s the holiday activity we’re riffing on that’s not quite ideal.
Okay. So let’s make the clothing rewards less rare. We’ll up the drop rate! Before we do this, though, let’s have a sanity check with other team members to make sure that a more common dress fits our goals — and not just our goals, but the goals of the overall game. For some reason, rarity is one of those factors that can make the most congenial team want to kill each other. What seems stupidly rare to me seems stupidly common to you, and sometimes there’s just no explaining why. The best we can do is try to place the item and its rarity within the context of the broader game.
And once we’ve done that, we’ll need to consider questions like these: Should we let you stock up on dresses? That’s not really an issue now, but it might be if we adjust the rarity. What will happen if we let you stock up? Presumably you sell them in the fall for a profit. Is that bad? To counter stockpiling, we could make the clothing bind on pickup (although that would affect existing items, which is somewhat rude). Or we could make them unique so you can only carry one of each type. Or we can make finding the clothing pieces contingent on a quest, so that you only ever find one. Would that be one ever, or one per year? One ever didn’t work out so well with the Lunar Festival, so probably one per year. But maybe we should just let you stockpile the damned dresses — unless that encourages people to stick around using up all the eggs and being all competitive.
And you know, none of things things fixes the basic underlying issue with the eggs themselves: that they are too scattered and too hard to see.
So we keep tweaking and thinking and trying to predict player behavior. The actual results in this theoretical case aren’t nearly as important as the process of analyzing the situation and thinking through the potential modifications. In the end, my own suggested changes would be something like this:
- More, more, more eggs! Triple the spawn rate of the eggs. The main goal here is to lower competition, although the changes to the rewards will help with that also.
- In addition to money and candy, add an Egg Fragment to the loot contained in each egg. Also remove the chance to drop clothing. You’ll be obtaining that in other ways.
- Make the eggs easier to spot. Two actions could help here: First, the eggs can use the normal quest-item sparkle to draw players’ attention. Second, allow players to buy a buff from the Noblegarden vendor (see below) that let’s them track eggs on their minimap for 30 minutes.
- Stick a Noblegarden vendor in each newbie zone town. In addition to the egg-tracking buff, this vendor would also trade a certain number of Egg Fragments for the White Tuxedo Shirt (20 fragments), the Black Tuxedo Pants (20 fragments), and the Elegant Dress (60 fragments).
- Finally, the Noblegarden vendor also trades Egg Fragments for the recipes to make the clothing: Recipe: White Tuxedo Shirt (60 fragments), the Black Tuxedo Pants (60 fragments), and the Elegant Dress (180 fragments).
Goals: Reduce competition and frustration of finding eggs. Increase utility of finding any one egg. Increase distribution of rewards to all players.
Total new content: 1 generic NPC, 1 quest item, 1 buff, 3 recipes.
I want to emphasize, though, that my suggestions here are really just self-indulgent navel-gazing. Without knowing the actual goals of the content, I’m just guessing. But it’s still fun (and educational) to go through the process!
This little deconstruction exercise shows how we can analyze and modify existing content: determine the goals, observe actual behavior, and then brainstorm methods to make the behavior better fit the goals (or else change the goals!).
I hope that it also shows some of the many skeins of thought that go into MMO design. The point is not Noblegarden, of course — the point is to think about the factors that go into the design of good content — and the number one factor is always going to be the players.
Of course, if I was really a Blizzard designer I would have a couple of follow-up tasks here:
- Make sure that the goals of the Noblegarden event were clearly documented so that future live team members could more easily evaluate the content’s performance. (This is especially important if the goals have changed. Otherwise it becomes a matter of tribal lore and team politics, both of which are notoriously unreliable.)
- Document the reasoning behind any modifications I decided to make as well as any modifications I decided not to make, so that future team members can more easily avoid mistakes that seem obvious now but may not in a few years. (They will have to deal with the mistakes that I end up making (because they don’t seem obvious now) on their own.)