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Blizzard's B Squad

Posted by Michael Bitton on Jul 13, 2009  | Comments

Blizzard's B Squad -

Eric Heimburg, a long time MMO developer (Asheron's Call 2, Star Trek Online) has posted at length on a peculiar situation that may be occuring in World of Warcraft over on his blog at the Elder Game.

Giving us some insight into the world of MMOG development, Eric first opens up about his love of working on an MMOG's Live Team, and how he is definitely in the minority for feeling this way. MMOG Live Teams, Eric explains, typically consist of the younger, less experienced team members, because the more experienced ones are usually both burnt out on the project and move on to newer projects where they are needed most.

Eric also details what it's like working on a live team, the kinds of unanticipated pitfalls one can fall into, as well as the aspects that make the whole thing much more rewarding. In particular, it takes a different type of thinking to work on a game that players are actively experiencing.

For example, he mentions the fact that when he first took over balancing Asheron's Call 2 (being less experienced at the time) he had to learn the hard way that there was more to the balancing act that the numbers alone. He balanced the Feral Intendent class in Asheron's Call 2, which by his determination at least, was 30% overpowered. With everything now in line, he figured all would be well. He was wrong. The players were upset. Why? They didn't mind the Feral Intendent being overpowered, because the other classes were considered underdogs, and they liked feeling like they were playing the game's "Hard Mode".

Eric explains that it's simple lessons like considering the human equation when balancing a live game, that you just don't learn until you do it yourself. And as you learn these lessons, you're bound to make a number of mistakes along the way.

Now, Eric is seeing the tell-tale signs of this inexperienced "B Squad" taking over for the Live Team in a little game called World of Warcraft. He mentions Jeff Kaplan's departure from World of Warcraft, as a telling sign. And while he assures us he believes WoW is still in capable hands, he believes they are in less experienced ones. He uses the Hunter class as an example:

A few months back, the powers that be decided that Hunter ammunition didn’t work right. Hunters have to carry an arrow for every single shot they take, and in order to get the full benefits from them, they have to carry them in a special quiver — which doesn’t let you store other items in it, only ammo. All that ammo costs money, too. Plus, it leaves the designers unable to give out awesome “raid arrows” because you’d just shoot them all and then where would you be? Even though ammo had been a fine and fun distinguishing quirk of Hunters for years, it was time to Fix It.

The first plan was announced: WoW would no longer have consumable ammo. Instead, you would just need a single “infinite arrow” that you stuck in your ammo slot, and this would let you shoot your bow forever. Problem solved! No more quivers, no more pack space wasted, no more costs. And now raids could drop “loot arrows” that wouldn’t get used up! Perfect!

Whoops, turns out that plan would be hard. So they announced their backup plan: now ammo just stacks to very high numbers. Instead of having stacks of 200, now you can have stacks of 1000. This at least addresses the “pack space” issue. Call it a win! And they removed the magical benefits from quivers, so you no longer needed to use them. So they fixed the immediate emergency, and they’ll get to the “correct fix” later.

The thing is, there was no emergency. Sure, Hunters were happy to have a few extra pack slots. But the change threw all sorts of other things out of whack: magic quivers are still given out as quest rewards… they just aren’t magical anymore. And leathercrafters can still make them! They just can’t sell them to any sane Hunter. And so on… the game wasn’t really cleaned up after this change.

But I’m sure it felt so pressing, so urgent. So they had to address the issue, side-effects be damned.

Without somebody experienced at the helm, the voice of the myopic designer tends to be the loudest. “WE HAVE TO FIX THE HUNTER” they said. Maybe they said, “Hunters have to spend 65% more on bare essentials than any other class. I will never be able to balance class expenditures like this!” Or maybe they said, “Hunters have to waste more inventory slots than any other class. It damages quest completion rates!” Or maybe they just said, “It’s SO STUPID. It’s always been stupid, and we just need to fix it! Do it now!” Obviously, nobody thought very hard about the ramifications, and nobody spent any time easing players into the idea. And nobody stopped to make sure they did a good job.

So some tiny little mistakes crept into the game. Nothing huge. Nothing that will sink the Titanic. But mistakes nonetheless… “magical” crafted quivers that aren’t magical and can’t be sold are clearly a mistake. These little bugs accumulate, like lint on a hardwood floor.

Find out what else Eric has to say on the subject in the full blog entry here.

Let us know what you think in the comments!

Michael Bitton / Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB
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