Before I was assigned to work with Mike, the way we designed zones was something like this:
(Names removed to protect the innocent and content dramatically oversimplified to exaggerate the point)
Eight designers are gathered in a circle of chairs outside of their offices. The soft yellow light overhead is complemented by the low hum of the computers in the background. Small space aliens float by murmuring something about Warlock Tears.
Agent J: “So, this is Alexander’s first time doing abilities on a zone. Agent K, you printed out a list of the creature types in the zone that Agent M approved. Why don’t you run us through it?”
Agent K: “Of course! Agent M has requested that we put more Bird People in the western half of the zone.”
Agent J: “Oh! Bird people! That should make for some interesting opportunities. Perhaps they can attack with their feathers.”
I furiously scratch down notes on the sheet.
Agent M: “Well, bird people don’t seem like the type to use their own feathers. Definitely more… dark magic users.”
Agent J: “Shadow Bolts for sure then! Nothing says evil like Shadow Bolts!”
Soft laughter fills the space.
Agent S: “You know, we’ve got this new Mage ability known as Spellsteal. It’s very important that opportunities exist for player to steal things. These guys should have a buff you can steal.”
Agent T: “That’s a great idea. Maybe it boosts your mana regeneration or something handy. Hey, we just got knockback tech – it would be really funny if the bird people knocked you off of their ledges.”
Agent J: “That actually sounds really annoying. We should be careful to not overuse knock backs. How about a charge on the pull instead?”
Agent K: “Maybe only the mages can do it. That way you know to be more careful when you see them.”
Agent J: “Okay! I can dig that.”
I continue to jot down notes and throw out my own ideas into the mix. 30 minutes later…
|Ghost Knights! They charge!|
Agent J: “Whew. Alright! Is that the last of the creatures?”
Agent M: “Yup! Oh wait, actually we have uhm… some ghosts we just added last night.”
Agent K: “Ghosts of what?”
Agent M: “Ghosts of deceased alliance soldiers. Looks like a mage and a warrior type. “
Agent J: “Well, lets just go with War 3 style abilities there. Fireball, Frost Nova. The warriors can use Shield Block and Strike.”
Me: “Maybe we can even mix a few ghostly knights who patrol and charge at you when they aggro?”
Agent J: “That sounds great! Make it happen.”
I set off furiously to work copying the abilities described to the creatures.
Communicating Theme is not Communicating Mechanics
The above was a huge exaggeration, but notice where the emphasis was – what story-wise makes sense here. The lore directed into themes and ideas.
What it was not directed at was mechanics.
“… so who exactly decided this?” asked Mike as he looked at the list I had made a few months back.
“We did, in a meeting.”
Mike gave one of those huge grins he reserves for polite self amusement, “Design by committee is good for getting rough ideas and poor for fleshing out mechanics.”
“Didn’t you just say last week that the most boring wolves in Elwynn were enough, because your class abilities were fun enough?”
“Yes. It’s important to remember the context. It’s not enough to have a rule. You must know when to apply it and – much later – when to ignore it.”
“So what should we do here?”
“These are advanced, matured players who have been playing the game for a long time. So we should generally cater the abilities to players who know how our game works. At the same time, if everything is a unique snowflake, nothing is. Let’s pick a few things to make flashy and let the rest be simple.”
“Okay,” I said, “So lets say half the creatures get something new and cool and the rest get Strike.”
Mike laughed, “Heh – no. Almost nothing should have Strike. Strike violates both sides – it has no gameplay and no theme. Avoid those at all costs. At the very least, call it ‘Clawing Strike’ to reinforce that these are birds.”
“So what makes something fun and interesting?”
“If I knew the perfect answer to that, this would be a much shorter conversation.”
“Okay, then what should we be trying to do with the outdoor spawning?”
“Lets try to create lots of situations where players get to either use abilities or adjust their positioning to handle the monsters better.”
“This sounds like a lot of work.”
“Don’t worry, it is.”
Building Good Mechanics is Hard Work Too
We spent the next two weeks reviewing the old game, writing down a list of memorable experiences, dangerous moments, mechanics and themes that worked throughout the game and compiled them into a huge library of tools to draw upon as we built Outland.
We combined a lot of the stuff we’d already done in the game with ideas drawn out from other games, other departments, other people and ourselves. If you’ve ever heard the term “Designed by Blizzard” this is exactly what it means. Reflecting upon a combination of a long legacy of good mechanics, combined with the passion, input and inspiration of new ideas, often leads to a great mix of familiarity and novelty.
But what does it take to make great mechanics? That is ultimately where I want to take this blog. The answer is disturbingly simple, but the journey to get there is not.