Sunday, October 19, 2008

Well, you don't need a million dollars to do nothing, man...

I must admit that I'm starting to really like Warhammer for all of its basic flaws (it's an MMO which requires too much chat/monogamy; it has serious usability issues mainly in terms of discoverability of core features). Between it and small bouts of Facebook word games, it's pretty much all the gaming I've done this past week.

Now that I'm spending more time working on games I'm spending less time playing them for fun. It's a known issue with folks working in the industry. And it sucks. There are lots of great games that I want to play, but I just don't have time.

I'll be the "guest of honor" at a local Usability Professionals Association dinner function next week where I'll be bringing a variety of handheld and board/card games to play and discuss with some of my usability peers. It should be interesting -- I really want to talk about pick-up-and-play experience (accessibility, initial experience) and the social surfacing of related content (something that few games do well -- with the basic point being: Now that I've found a game and given you money, could you please help me spend more money on other things I'd like).

I'll also be attending "Night to Unite", which is a charity event hosted by the ESA. It's in San Francisco and should be quite fun -- I'll be hanging out with good friends and the proceeds go to a good cause.

Oh, yeah. The title line to this post obviously refers to Lawrence and Peter Gibbons' conversation about what the two of them would do if they had a million dollars in the cult classic Office Space. I bring it up because just as I logged from my last session in Warhammer I realized that I had just accepted two quests from a man named "Diedrich Bader" (the name of the comedian who plays Lawrence and has performed in many other TV and film roles). I do like a game with a good sense of humor.

So, Warhammer.

Before I criticize the game too much, I should point out that they have perhaps the best feature ever. Well, I guess it really is the best implementation of the feature ever because other games have included it before. 

The feature I am loving is the "let me do fun stuff while waiting for PvP matchmaking to complete" feature.

Prior to this, the best "waiting for a game to start" feature was to provide a sound effect so that players knew to Alt-Tab back to the game window from their email or websurfing. Nothing struck me as so lame and painfully boring as watching folks in other MMO and competitive MP games chatting and bitching while waiting for one more person to fill the last slot. Thus I never grouped in games like World of Warcraft (which limited its appeal because you can't progress very far without questing in groups) and why I only played RTS games that had quick match (so I didn't have to sit in a lobby or staging area and listen to 14 year old kids talk about their homework until the game started).

Warhammer does an awesome job of dropping the player into interesting and well balanced PvP group game play. You simply join a queue (off of a UI widget on the main screen) and wait until the queue fills. Then you continue going on about your normal questing business. When a slot is ready and the game is about ready to go, you get a simple popup that allows you (and your party if they're interested) to join -- or decline if you're in the middle of something cooler and don't want to be interrupted.

The BEST part is that when the PvP instance is over, you're dropped right back where you started and lose absolutely no progress. Wow.

This encourages loners like me to group with folks because it's painless (the combat is so tactical and frenetic that there isn't time for people to bitch and chat much -- it's more like an MP objective map in a first person shooter). This makes things much better for PvP people because they get hot and heavy action without having to stand around and spam chat channels for groups.

The closest I've seen to this quality of implementation was in Halo 3 which allowed the player to surf for Live games while in SP mode. However, you lost all mission progress when you left the SP experience which meant that you had to make a tough choice: Do I join my friends' game and lose 30 mins of progress? Or do I decline and finish the level?

Warhammer: The downside...

So, I'm really interested in Warhammer because I'd like to start working on some more casual MMO games. This means that the game play needs to be accessible, deep but not overly complex, and lend itself well to more casual game play patterns.

In terms of accessibility, it's clear that Warhammer did not pay much attention to the initial experience for non-MMO players in general -- and did not do some basic work on feature discoverability for more seasoned MMO players.
  • The game is full of jargon which will be unintelligible to the newb to the genre. It's very stat heavy and relies on people knowing about differences amongst a variety of concepts like DPS, corporeal vs. spirit effects, reknown vs. XP, etc.
  • The game UI is OK when it comes to text windows (although more useful help text in several places would be great) but is very difficult to use when it comes to the illustrated UI screens. It's hard to know what parts of the UI are interactive as these screens tend to look like 2d art. I missed basic features (like how to travel across the map, how to abandon a quest) and more esoteric features (like how to give myself a cool title) because controls were undiscoverable.
As far as an initial experience for seasoned MMO players, the game actually does do a good job of guiding players to the cool new features by a thoughtful quest progression. There's a nice mixture of forcing the player's hand (doing the quest explicitly forces you to learn a new feature) and letting the player "happen upon" a cool feature -- like landing in the middle of a public quest that is already underway. 

In terms of complexity... Wow. Given that there are really only a few basic concepts (there are two opposing sides that are fighting an epic war on multiple fronts; there are some PvE events and some PvP events; players can help their side win by engaging in a mixture of both kind of events) they are represented by frighteningly complex visualizations in both game UI and map screens. The UI widgets and map screens look like charts from some PhD dissertation on quantum physics. Although the designer in me thinks it's cool how deep and complex the systems are, the player in me has to simply ignore it all in order to focus on the immediate task at hand.

In terms of play patterns, I'm curious how it's going to work. I'll be AFK for the next week, leaving my buddy (Kyle) behind. Then he'll be gone for a couple of weeks. I've been doing some play by myself and some with Kyle. I wonder whether we will end up growing apart -- and whether I will end up leaving the game because I can't just give it 3-6 hours per week so that I can keep up with my other gaming needs (and my life outside of games).

I guess time will tell.

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