People Don’t Know What They Want

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It’s an inevitable fact of life when it comes to videogames and particularly videogame forums — People don’t know what they want. Or, rather, people know what they want in the short term, but don’t have a clear enough mental picture of what they do like and want to foresee the consequences of their current desires in the long term.

I bring up the subject mostly in relation to the latest batch of testing that’s been going on in Guild Wars: Nightfall this past weekend (January 19th – 21st), but it’s pretty applicable to other games and ultimately any situation where direct feedback arises. For anyone who’s interested and familiar with Guild Wars, the game updates can be seen over here — However, the exact specifics aren’t all that interesting and probably seem like a mishmash of numbers and words for someone who doesn’t play Guild Wars at a high level.

Now to elaborate a bit on this situation here — Guild Wars, at least in the Player vs. Player sense, has a couple of different layers to it. The first and most obvious is “Balance” — A nebulous and hard-to-pin-down concept if there ever was one. The other major factor in Player vs. Player play is referred to as “Metagame.” The metagame is essentially a loose collection of ideas about the game which players have which influence play choices. For example, if a highly ranked Guild runs a certain specific “build” it’s highly likely that lesser players will copy the build. If it’s effective and successful for lesser skilled players it will probably become pretty popular. At that point the build will probably become stagnant — Dogmatic and uncreative players will require everyone in their party to follow this build to the letter. This eventually is broken when alternative, but related builds are introduced. The other side of this metagame development are people that refuse to run an effective build because it’s popular, or people who plan their builds specifically around countering another build.

In any case, since the release of Guild Wars there have been a huge number of complaints about this strategy or that. Some of them are legitimate, others are just posts by people who feel entitled to win and get upset when they don’t. And, naturally, the introduction of two new classes and something like 200 new skills necessarily disrupts the known Metagame. So this weekend ArenaNet rolled out a huge number of changes [temporarily] to try out some of the balance effects. And while the large majority of the changes were positive, there’s a lot of major downtweaks to important skills. I don’t want to really get into the specifics here, particularly because I felt like I haven’t had my playstyle hit by any of the major changes, but observing the reactions of other players is always kind of surreal.

Across the major Guild Wars fansites, people cry out for continued “nerfings” of this or that skill in order to rectify their perceived balance issues. This reminds me far too much of what happened to the Unreal franchise with UT2003. The elite level players decided virtually every weapon was too strong, so virtually every weapon in the UT2003/4 takes ages to kill anyone. In other words, it’s boring. The only real exception is the Shock Rifle, and damned if people aren’t pushing for the Shock Rifle to be downtweaked into oblivion for UT2007.

Guild Wars already has less dynamic, attrition-based play than I would like. Downtweak some of the major damage-spiking powers too much and the entire balance of the game between pressure and spiking can be thrown off. And while everyone could congratulate themselves on bringing balance to the game, chances are that with too much meddling we’ll end up with a game that’s just so boring to play that no one will — I’ll take unbalanced over that any day.

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