This is How Systems Designers Think

I make fun of systems designers a lot because I am one. I wear a lot of hats, and I actually love to code, but deep down, it’s all about the game systems.

People who think like me are really useful to have on your MMO team. They won’t just dig into the guts of your game, they will revel in the guts of your game, sorting them this way and that, modeling them in myriad ways. This will, generally, result in a better product.

But they won’t ever come to the producer and say, “Okay! The balancing is all finished!” Trust me: that will never happen.

In the latest WoW update, the systems designers are revising everything. Why? Because it wasn’t perfect. And it needs to be perfect. Take the Hunter ability “Volley”. They cut it from the game, because:

Channeling a spell that makes arrows fall out of the sky doesn’t feel like a hunter ability and doesn’t even really match the name of the spell.

But fear not, because hunters can now launch their traps! And a long-distance snake trap should be a hit at parties; the snakes have various debilitating effects. Of course, propelling traps a great distance is a bit odd, as players were quick to point out:

Trap launcher? :lol:

I have to admit, I find it silly that they think Volley is too “magical” but us tying a bag/box of snakes to an arrow and shooting them at people is perfectly reasonable.

But this is how designers think. After manipulating these skills for years and analyzing them from every angle, it starts to make sense in a way that sane people can have a hard time seeing.

Snakes Over Time

Ah, a classic: I remember when Strider used a snakes-over-time attack to slow the ring-wraiths' movement speed for 15 seconds.

Summoning arrows is ridiculous, that’s something a wizard would do — and the WoW hunter is no wizard. No, the Hunter is apparently modeled after the cheesiest version of the Green Arrow, who has a specialty arrow for every situation. That’s pretty cool, actually… but I’m not sure how that makes more sense than abstractly raining arrows on a target. Then again, I haven’t been poring over these skills for thousands of hours, either.

Expect Systems Designers To Think Like… Systems Designers

What I’m trying to say is this: you hired these guys because they love to create fun mechanics and then balance them. The same personality traits that make them good at this job also tend to give them a bit of an obsessive streak, to put it mildly.

To a systems designer, the game is always imperfect. And not just mildly imperfect – radically imperfect. In need of a total do-over. And when you finish the total do-over, it won’t be perfect either, and you’ll need another one. And then you just need to touch up every single thing four or five times over several years, and then, you know what? We really need to just wipe this system and do it over.

It will never end.

boxing glove arrow

Philosophical question: is the boxing-glove arrow more insane or less insane than the bag-of-snakes arrow?

At first, the designer is completely right, and the game probably really is horrifically imbalanced. But at some point, perhaps years later, the designer’s opinion of “imbalanced” will be so subtle that players will have trouble even conceiving of the problem being solved. At this point, further changes will have very small return on investment. However, knowing when you reach that line is not easy, since it requires your systems designers to step away from their beloved spreadsheets and be objective about a problem’s actual impact on the game. This is a learned skill that systems designers do not just magically have.


So here’s what I’m telling you:

  1. If you’re a systems designer, realize your obsession, so that you can occasionally take a step back and see if you’re still sane.
  2. If you’re a producer, realize your systems designer is obsessed with perfecting the game and they will never ever be done. And every problem will always be presented as a heinous game-ruining problem. It’s up to you to decide what to do about that, if anything.
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7 Responses to This is How Systems Designers Think

  1. smakendahed says:

    We Hunters have a boxing-glove arrow, it’s called Concussive Shot. :)

    I love systems, so much so, I end up buying RPGs sourcebooks that I won’t ever get to play just to read up and see how it works. I then tend to play things out in my head to see how it all could come together.

    It’s fun in a dorky sort of way.

  2. Loredena says:

    Not that I’m every going back to WoW, but as a hunter I rather enjoyed Volley. Also, I played a Beastmaster and my husband played his hunter as a Marksman — neither of us enjoyed trapping, so losing Volley for a better trapping spell would just tick us off. But we’re never going to go back anyway, so meh.

    Also also, it’s not just game system designers who do that. It’s pretty common on most projects to remind people that they really are just supposed to make the scoped changes, and not rewrite half the program as long as they are in there anyway….

  3. Ibn says:

    I play a Hunter currently and I use Volley all the time, since dungeon runs these days are all about AOE. My first reaction to the “doesn’t feel like a Hunter ability” comment was disbelief. “Of course it does!” Then I stepped back and asked myself WHY my gut reaction is that it does feel like a Hunter ability. Why? Because I’m a Hunter, and I’ve been using that ability!

    Many systems designers have a bad habit of ignoring the human factor, the “Hmmm even though this doesn’t fit the pattern perfectly, people seem to like it.” Changing things to make them “better” when the current system is actually quite successful feels like unnecessary risk to me. Status quo should always get a little bit of extra weight just because it’s status quo and players fear change.

  4. axhed says:

    nice article, i was expecting more ewom bashing. in my next life i’ll be a system designer, or a rockstar.

  5. Lance says:

    It’s always been my impression that part of the reason for periodic changes in talent trees, gear mechanics’ etc. was to stir things up, to keep things from getting stale. Static content is the enemy of a game’s longevity, and what your character is and does is the most important piece of content of all.

    Given how much is changing (including the most important piece of all, the world itself), I’m looking at Cacaclysm as WoW 1.5. I expect radical changes, I -want- radical changes. I want to have to relearn my character class.

    That being said… trap launchers? Sounds to me like a designer has been sleep-deprived and denied contact with real people for a long time. No matter how good the mechanic, I’d be ashamed to show my face as a trap-launching specialist. That’s just dumb. It sounds like someone with a spreadsheet and a degree in statistical analysis got the better of writers and story designers in a meeting. Now, it’s entirely possible that there are more theorycraft players (who like any new mechanic as it gives them a chance to do their thing) than immersion players (for whom the integrity of the character’s concept is paramound) in WoW. There are also people who will do whatever maxes DPS, no matter how much it makes them grit their teeth in annoyance. They have their customer research, we don’t. But I have a hard time believe that, even with my immersion-bias.

    They should do a little research and learn of the flaming pig trick. Hunters dispatching suicide-bomber pets that explode or lay down walls of fire or crap land mines on the run or distract enemy pets or give druids tapeworms… there’s actually Roman-era historical precedent (look up War Pig on Wikipedia). It makes a LOT more sense in lore and context than “trap-launchers”. Good god, trap-launchers…

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  7. RobertB says:

    I would buy GC’s roleplay-based argument for removing volley if it didn’t seem so disingenuous. WoW’s moved more and more towards an ‘everyone can do everything’ model. But if you’re trying to move towards more specialization rather than less, Hunter seems like the exact wrong place to start tweaking, since it’s already one of the few ‘pure’ classes in the game.

    My tinfoil-hat theory; there’s some other reason to cut it, but GC doesn’t want to say the reason in public. The theory du jour: ex-wife plays a Hunter. :)