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Why Don’t They...

Sanya Weathers Posted:
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There’s a line in Robert Heinlein’s last novel that reads “Any question that starts out ‘why don’t they—‘ the answer is always ‘Money.’”

On the bright side, I just saved you the trouble of reading this column.

Making a change to an MMO is never simple addition or subtraction. Even something as simple as adjusting damage has wide-ranging implications, and the older the game is, the wider the ripple effects will go.

A hammer that does more damage changes the value of armor. In some games, more damage wears the armor out faster. Melee damage usually makes a difference on the frequency of out-of-action effects such as stun. Also, at the lower levels, even the handwavers and the backstabbers end up finishing fights with melee, so any melee change will have an impact on how quickly people are moving through content and leveling up. The faster the kills, the faster loot and gold pour into the economy.

Sure, it’s only a minor difference in all those areas. But let me quote another book, Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens: “The pass-along effects were incalculable. Thousands and thousands of souls all got a faint patina of tarnish, and you hardly had to lift a finger.” Okay, the authors were talking about tainting humanity with evil, not balancing an MMO, but some days I wonder what the difference is.

My point is just that even a simple little 5% increase to hammer damage touches nearly every technical part of an MMO.

And what if the problem wasn’t actually hammer damage, but a typo causing an attribute such as strength to have less of an effect on gameplay than agility? In three months, a new programmer is going to find that typo and fix it. Suddenly, hammer weapons are hugely overpowered, but the content guy that adjusted the weapon damage spreadsheet got laid off during the last “reshuffle” and no one remembers the adjustment or why it was done.

Excuse me. It’s after five o’clock somewhere.

If I’m this agitated over hammer damage, imagine my reaction to someone asking for a special ruleset server.

Everyone who ever lived in a college dorm has played the “what would happen if you went back in time and step on a butterfly” game. (If you didn’t, the game is based on this Bradbury story) Now take a virtual world with all its moving parts, and go back and step on a butterfly. Say you’ve got a faction based PVP game, with no such thing as friendly fire. Why not make it a free for all game? All you have to do is remove one line of code, the one that prevents friendly fire, so your attacks can damage anyone. All players have to do is think before they click. Voila. With no real effort, the game can please both its intended audience, *and* the people who want unlimited PVP in an MMO setting.

Why don’t game companies do this? The answer is money. Or rather, the money represented by the thousands of man hours it would take to do a playable job.

Every class with area of effect abilities needs to be nerfed. There are now combinations of allies and enemies available that were never planned or tested. Progression needs to be tried out in all regions with all possible characters.

Hard coded barriers need to be removed. What about spawn points? They need to be set for everyone to appear at the nearest one, not the nearest one for the character’s original faction. NPCs need to be set to respond to everyone.

All faction restricted items need to be changed so any faction can use them… or can they? Do the items – armor, weapons – fit on all the models? Do their damage types work for all factions? Do their special attacks and animations work for all factions?

I can keep going. The point is you can’t just use toes in place of fingers without a hell of a lot of modifications and/or practice, and it’s always going to look funny. There are only a handful of game companies in the world with the kind of money necessary to do a lot of retrofitting – and they got that kind of money by not being stupid with it.

All I’m saying is that the only time to step on a butterfly is before launch.


Sanya Weathers