A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer



Fear of Change

Not long ago The Id DM posted a great write-up about errata in general - Et tu, Errata? - that discusses the nature of errata without going in to a line by line analysis of the Templar/Cleric changes by Wizards of the Coast.

I was going to chime in with an analysis, but I figured I'd take a similar angle and speak as a developer and game designer. In his post he discusses how errata is similar to software patches, and I've decided to elaborate on that a little further and use an example that he says he's never played: MMORPGs.

I've never played World of Warcraft, but for a time I was a rather heavy player in Everquest 2, and it has had its share of updates over the years. In addition to the times new add-ons were pushed (there have been five so far, I think), on several occasions they have introduced major changes in order to "fix" things. Although a majority of changes were in fact fixes to stop things such as exploits, some of those changes were quite radical: common items changed stats, mitigation (the equivalent of damage resistance in D&D) changed drastically, damage-per-second rates changed radically, some powers got "nerfed" or a got a serious boost, new items were made available that made the old ones obsolete, etc... Since it was an online game and a living, breathing server, you didn't have a choice in the matter. Changes went live on a fixed date and you had to either accept them or not play the game.

A lot of changes of this kind might not make sense to some players, but as a designer I know what it takes to even consider these changes. The developers didn't make a change just because they felt like it or because they were bored one day; each change had a reason or intention, and a painstaking amount of testing - internal developer testing, validation testing to ensure the feature was implemented correctly, internal QA testing for several weeks to ensure the change doesn't unbalance the game, public beta testing (or "user acceptance" testing, if you will) for several months, etc... - went in to every update to ensure that it did not change the game for the worse.

Every single update has a reason for being, and at the time SOE (Sony Online Entertainment, which owns and operates the EQ2 servers) was very good about providing a detailed explanation of why the changes were made.

But compared to WotC's errata, there are two major differences with how they do things:

  1. They announced the intended changes months before they went live. "Hey, these changes are coming... Get ready!" When the changes went to production, players weren't surprised and adapted quickly.
  2. They listened to player commentary, from the public beta testers actually using the changes to players that can only imagine how their game will change, well before the changes made it to production. In some cases that feedback allowed the developers to make further modifications before the change went live, pushing them to their test servers for even more feedback. And I can recall several planned changes that were ultimately scrapped because of user outcry.

Regardless, the changes eventually came and in some cases altered the game dramatically. I had several characters in EQ2, and on more than one occasion I found that the patches they made changed my style of play and how the group worked together. But I considered it a challenge and adapted, and it wasn't long before I learned the "new" way of playing and forgot everything about the old one.

As a customer of Wizards of the Coast, I have a certain degree of faith in the company to do some research and planning before making such radical changes. I may be personally bitter about how they ravaged my favorite character class, but in the back of my mind I understand that they must have done it for a reason. The original design was probably flawed and I simply accepted it because I didn't know of any other way to go. Put simply, I was using it wrong and didn't know it.

In seeing the recent backlash over the changes, I noticed something: almost all of the people complaining are complaining because of the nature of change itself.  It doesn't matter what the cleric was before or what it is now... It's a problem because it's different, and extremely different if you count the changes compared to other treatments (such as the fighter weaponmaster). They're not complaining that Turn Undead only does 3d8 damage now; they're complaining because it use to do 6d10 damage.

Let's think about that for a second and go back to the above example: if you walked in to a GameStop today and purchased Everquest 2 (or World of Warcraft; I assume it has had the same issue when Cataclysm was released), went home to install it... would you be aware of all the changes that have occurred since the game first hit the shelf? Would you care how the game was originally?

I haven't done this myself - primarily because I've never played a cleric - but I ask some of you out there to try this: when the changes are live in the online Character Builder (they weren't last time I checked), go and try to create a cleric. But, before you do, clear your mind of everything that the cleric once was. Look at it as if it were a new class and weigh its pros and cons not on what it no longer is but rather how it compares to other classes. Play test it as if you've never been a cleric in your life. Consider yourself a newcomer to D&D 4e, oblivious to the history of changes the game has experienced as of late... Would the Templar bother you so much then?

Filed under: 4e, DnD, Mechanics, RPG Comments Off
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  1. Great article! Thank you for talking about the design process. I think players would feel more comfortable if WotC described why they updated the class (or whatever other changes they make).

    It is a challenge to adapt your style of play, but you don’t have to choice of ignoring the challenge if you wish. The topic is interesting and I look forward to reading more thoughtful comments.

  2. Since 4E was launched, I had this feeling that the game was a bit too much like trying to play a tabletop videogame, with all this daily powers and encounter powers that look so much like abilities on cooldowns. And now, with all the errata, the “nerfs” and the general changes to the system… it really is like a videogame. I’m not sure if I like the concept or not. When I play videogames is because I want to play videogames, and I accept the changes than come in multiplayer games to balance them. But, when I play a role playing game… it’s just too difficult to keep up to date with the hundreds of different manuals and new rules, just adding these huge character changes and so on… I hope this is just a necessary change, because if they keep changing the basic character classes, I can as well go and throw my books away

  3. “The original design was probably flawed and I simply accepted it because I didn’t know of any other way to go. Put simply, I was using it wrong and didn’t know it.”
    So you were having a great time playing your favorite class the way it was written into the rulebooks for months, if not years, but when WOTC comes out of nowhere and drastically and arbitrarily changes that class you blame yourself for “using it wrong”? Maybe you accepted it because you enjoyed it and the way it worked in the game. Maybe you were using it as fully supported by the existing rules. Either way, you liked playing that character.
    Fearing change is one thing; blindly accepting that “whatever WOTC does must be the best for me” is another. You bought rulebooks and paid for subscriptions and found a build that not only satisfied but pleased you, but now that has been taken away. Yes, you can play the Templar as though you had never played a Cleric before, perhaps you may even enjoy it more. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be able to play your former character. The CB will negate everything you put into that old character and force you to play it in a different way.
    More troubling is the implication that you automatically assume that you are at fault, that you have been playing the game incorrectly, that you need the guiding hand of WOTC to steer you correctly. It is a game. You were having fun playing the game. Yet as soon as errata show up you assume the design was flawed? That you only played because you didn’t know any better? That you were wrong to enjoy yourself playing the game for an extensive period of time as it was sold to you?
    You are a talented writer and have thoughtful opinions, but you seem to have underlying esteem issues. Don’t assume that any company knows what’s best for you. Your article is well written, I just can’t believe the quoted phrase above.

  4. I think a big part of the problem is that people whose Character Builder sheets once said ‘Cleric’ now see ‘Templar’ when they print them. I know I’m annoyed that my battlerager Fighter’s sheet shows him as a Weaponmaster now. He isn’t anything of the kind.

    You should at least have the option to print your class’ name on your character sheet, not your subclass’ name.