Well, it *has* been a few weeks since I backed a Kickstarter

I really don’t need more board games or other things to spend money on at this point. Naturally, just when I’d thought that I’d gotten away from going overboard with Kickstarters, I see this.

Actually, I was aware of it the last time around with the previous KS campaign which was cancelled, but I made my will save to resist backing it then. I’m currently looking at almost an entire month of additional will saves at this point, and I can feel my resolve eroding — I mean, it’s freakin’ Warcraft in boardgame form!

Six Degrees: Frank Herbert and WoW – Part 2

This is the second part of a nearly 40-year journey that examines the link between Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel, Dune, and World of Warcraft. You can read Part 1 here.

5. Blizzard’s rise to dominance
By the dawn of the new millennium, the popularity of the RTS was past its heyday and Westwood Studios, sadly, was essentially no more, having been acquired by EA and basically locked in a storage closet and forgotten. But the Command & Conquer-Warcraft rivalry managed to continue. Despite significant delays, Blizzard went first in this round, releasing the highly-anticipated Warcraft 3 in the summer of 2002. Command & Conquer: Generals followed several months later in early 2003. It is worth noting that not only did Generals introduce a new C&C universe, but it also significantly changed several aspects and mechanics of traditional C&C games, and often in ways that made it feel and play much more similar to Warcraft 3 than to its C&C forebears.

Before its release, the announcement of Generals came as a surprise to many fans who were expecting a third entry in either the Tiberium or Red Alert universe, not an entirely new one altogether. Both series did in fact receive a third game later on, with gameplay that retained the mechanics of the earlier games in the C&C series (and then a fourth game in the Teiberium universe, largely reviled by fans for introducing yet another new style of gameplay to the C&C Series), but it is at this point that we bid a fond adieu to the Command and Conquer universe.

Over a decade after its release, Battle.net servers for Warcraft 3 are still active, a testament to its popularity, craftsmanship and game balance. But besides these things, Warcraft 3 possesses something else of significant value: a setting that has now been fleshed out over the course of three games, and an epic storyline that brings the setting to life and creates characters that players care about. In a move taken from the playbook for Starcraft’s storyline, the story of Warcraft 3 is a continuous tale that players get to experience from the perspective of each faction as they play through the game. This not only gives the story length and continuity (as opposed to previous RTS games which normally told entirely different stories based on the faction that was being used), but helps to further flesh out the world and its characters.

6. Genre reassignment
Intellectual property such as characters, setting, storylines, and lore are assets that can be transferred from one game genre into other another, or even into entirely different forms of media (for example, the countless number of movies made based on books that are made). As the popularity of RTS games waned, a new type of game was rising: the massive multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. By this time, video game RPGs had been popular for quite some time, and with the increasing popularity of multiplayer games, the natural progression was to move from single-player experiences to multiplayer games set in a shared, persistent world. (It is worth noting that multiplayer online RPGs had actually existed for quite some time in the form of “multi-user dungeons” or MUDs, predating the widespread adoption of residential internet access. But these earlier games were limited by the technology of their time and would be considered quite primitive compared to MMORPGs that exist now.)

In addition to the game design and mechanics that have to be programmed and developed, a huge amount of work involved in making an MMORPG is creating the world in which the game takes place. Among other things, this includes creating the geography and various adventure sites that players can travel to, creating a history, populating it with non-player characters with whom the players can interact, and developing storylines by drawing from all of these prior elements.

Over the course of three RTS games set in the Warcraft universe, Blizzard had completed a significant portion of this world-building and now had at their disposal a rich IP from which to develop an MMORPG. In a mere 10 years, Warcraft went from a successful series of RTS games to what has become the most popular MMORPG to date since its release in 2004, World of Warcraft.

Final Thoughts
To recap: Frank Herbert wrote an epic sci-fi novel (1), which was later made into a movie and a series of computer games (2), one of which helped establish an entire genre of games (3). In this new genre (4), one series eventually rose to prominence above all others (5), not only for its gameplay, but for its rich world and storyline, which was eventually used as the setting for an MMORPG (6).

All of these factors contributed in some way to the creation of World of Warcraft. Of course, there are other contributing factors that led to the development and incredible success of World of Warcraft. Blizzard’s string of successful games from the mid-90’s to the early 2000’s helped fill their coffers to the point where they could afford to invest in a project as massive as World of Warcraft. It definitely helped that WoW’s release coincided with a period of time that saw a significant increase in the adoption of high-speed internet by residential customers.

Finally, Dungeons & Dragons was also experiencing significant growth in popularity at the time of World of Warcraft‘s release and during its early years. The interplay and cross-pollination taking place between the tabletop RPG and the MMORPG should not be overlooked. Not only was the the popularity of tabletop RPGs (and D&D in particular) vital for helping to create the target audience for MMORPGs, but many themes and mechanics were translated directly from their analog (tabletop) form into digital form as well. (Then, in what is perfectly symbolized by the ouroboros serpent featured in D&D‘s iconography, the 4th edition of D&D, released in 2008, in turn borrowed many concepts and mechanics from World of Warcraft.)

Of course, it’s also possible that World of Warcraft could have come about in a different way. If Westwood had not made Dune 2 or if it had not been so successful, perhaps another company would have created the game that defined RTS genre as we know it (although this scenario is somewhat dubious given the dearth of RTS games released between Dune 2 and Warcraft). If, for whatever reason, RTS games had not risen to the height of popularity that they reached in the 90’s, perhaps Blizzard would have still created enough source material to develop World of Warcraft — not insignificant portions of the lore contained in Warcraft 3 were created during development of their unreleased Warcraft Adventures game, and Warcraft 3 was originally not intended to be a traditional RTS, but a new sort of RPG/RTS hybrid (some vestiges of this early phase of development remain in Warcraft 3 in the form of the hero-focused gameplay, and the leveling and inventory systems). Warcraft 2 and Warcraft 3 were big sellers for Blizzard, but it’s possible their success with Starcraft and the first two Diablo games alone could have given them enough financial stability to pursue creating an MMORPG.

However, the fact remains that the most successful MMORPG of all time can trace its lineage back to a novel published in 1965 written by a man named Frank Herbert.

Six Degrees: Frank Herbert and WoW – Part 1

As often happens, the other night as I was drifting off to sleep, my mind started wandering off to strange places and I realized that there is a direct, traceable link between Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune… and World of Warcraft.

Say what? How can an esoteric sci-fi eco-parable (with overt religious and messianic themes thrown in for good measure) from the 1960s possibly be considered a progenitor of the most successful MMORPG of all time? What madness is this? Read on, and prepare to be dazzled! (Or, undoubtedly, bored, if you find this type of exercise pedantic and uninteresting.)

1. Point of Origin: Frank Herbert’s Dune
In 1965, Frank Herbert’s seminal novel, Dune, introduced the world to the spice mélange, giant sand worms, Fremen, and their homeworld of Arrakis — otherwise known as Dune. Much to my embarrassment, although I’m familiar with the main story and some of the lore, the books remain on my list of must-reads, and not my list of have-reads. But I’ve played most of the computer games and seen all of the movies based on it. That’s gotta count for something, right?

2. Diversifying into other media
Once in a while, a book, song, movie, or game –that is, a piece of art or culture — is created that is too spectacular in its artistry and craftsmanship, too far ahead of its time to be widely accepted. The first Dune film, by David Lynch, was not widely accepted, but not for those reasons. But it did probably help keep up awareness of the novel, which helped pave the way for the first Dune computer game, which was one of those spectacular creations that was too far ahead of its time.

Released in 1992, it featured engaging hybrid gameplay (strategy, resource management, and some adventure-game elements thrown into the mix), great voice acting, and an incredible soundtrack. Sadly, as is often the case with trailblazers, the world just wasn’t ready for something as unique as this game, and it never achieved the level of popularity that it deserved. However, like the movie before it, it did help pave the way for the next step, by bringing the universe of Dune into the world of computer games.

3. The rise of the RTS: Dune 2
While not the first actual RTS game to be created, Westwood Studios’ Dune 2 (formally titled Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, as well as other names, depending on the country and gaming platform) was the game that established real-time strategy games as a genre. Also released in 1992, the second Dune computer game deviated wildly from the storylines of both the book and the film, jettisoning almost all of the plot and established characters, and using only certain elements of the setting and the various warring factions before introducing a new one, House Ordos — because hey, if you’re going to basically gut an entire story line, what’s the big deal about introducing new content? (Of course, the introduction of the Ordos made sense from a gameply perspective, as it added more variety and options to the game, with the Ordos being the “fast” faction, compared to the slow but powerful Harkonnen and to the Atreides, who possessed a balance of speed and power.) It was only one game, but the floodgates to an untapped genre were about to be thrown open.

4. The Golden Age of the RTS: Blizzard and Westwood
Aware of the success of Dune 2, Blizzard Entertainment, who up to this point was a relatively small player with no major hits, tried their hand at making an RTS of their own called Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. Released in 1994, it went on to spawn an entire franchise of video games that you may have heard of. In what makes for a fascinating “what if?” scenario, Blizzard originally wanted to license the Warhammer IP from Games Workshop in order to help Warcraft appeal to a larger audience. Luckily for them and for the legions of World of Warcraft players worldwide, it didn’t pan out. But that’s skipping ahead.

Westwood followed up in 1995 with the first game in the eponymous Command & Conquer series, which became an instant classic. While having nearly identical mechanics and some similar themes as Dune 2, Command and Conquer was light years ahead of its predecessor in terms of production values, as was Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness, released at the end of 1995. Dune 2 codified the modern RTS, but it was Command and Conquer and Warcraft 2 that made them mainstream.

The golden age of the RTS was at hand, but as with any golden age, numerous contenders for the crown appeared; many RTS games were released during this time, some good, but many that were mediocre or worse. In a crowded field, Westwood and Blizzard stood out as the two rival powerhouses of the time, putting forth during this era such notable titles as Command & Conquer: Red AlertStarcraft, Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, and Red Alert 2. (Honorable mention goes to Cavedog’s Total Annihilation, one of the few examples of a great RTS not made by either Westwood or Blizzard, and another example of a game that didn’t achieve the level of popularity it deserved.)

So we’ve gone from a science fiction novel to RTS games in the 1990s, but what does that have to do with World of Warcraft?

Go to Part 2

Meaningful Choice in Game Design

I still haven’t played Frostgrave yet because I’ve been more of a poser than an actual gamer lately, trying to keep abreast of what’s happening in the industry, putting in time on this blog, but not getting to actually play many games. (In fairness, I’m also spending as much time as I can on a gaming-related side project… coming SOON). Frostgrave is definitely near the top of the list of new games I want to try.

I’ve read the rules, and they seem pretty solid, and I definitely dig the D&D vibe it has going on. One thing that raises a flag in my mind, however, is allowing apprentices to be optional. The rules pretty much say that taking an apprentice is always the optimal choice over spending an equivalent amount of gold on soldiers. Given that the optimal choice clear, it seems pointless to make it a choice at all. However, since I haven’t actually played the game yet, I’ll refrain from taking a definitive stance on this point, but it does lead to a broader topic.


Meaningful Choice in Game Design

Choices are what makes a game a game. This is such a defining feature that games such as Candyland, “War” (that silly card game we all played as kids), and BINGO are not really games at all; rather they are programmed systems that you run to find out what the outcome is. In all three examples, the programming is the order that that the cards end up in after shuffling or the order that the BINGO numbers are called. Ask yourself: is there anything that the player can do in any of these games that will have an effect on the outcome? (I suppose if you introduce the element of gambling into BINGO, then it qualifies as a game since you have to decide how much to wager or how many boards to play, but, not being a blue-haired old lady, my experience of playing BINGO competitively is nonexistent. Also, I don’t intend to diminish the value of Candyland for teaching kids some of the basic structures of games and preparing them for better games down the road.)

An essential feature of good game design is meaningful choices. Choices are what makes a game, but interesting choices that have a meaningful impact on the outcome of the game are part of what makes a good game. One obscure example that stands out to me (and here, I will draw on my experience of a game that I have actually played to make my point!) was a piece of equipment from an early version of Reaper’s tabletop miniatures game, Warlord. Whether or not you’ve ever heard of this game isn’t really important – but props to you if you have heard of it, and more still if you’ve ever played this fun game which never became as popular as it deserved to be!

In Warlord, there was a 10-point piece of equipment known as “Divine Favor.” To give you a sense of what 10 points in this game means, 1,000  – 1,500 points were the most common game sizes during this time (meaning that Divine Favor would account for 1% of your army’s value, at most). There was a spell called “Bandage” which also cost 10 points. Using Divine Favor or Bandage resulted in similar outcomes, which on the surface made their identical point costs seem to make sense, but here are a few other facts:

  • Divine Favor was a one-shot item that automatically negated (negated, not healed) the first point of damage the model equipped with it took, after which it was used up.
  • Bandage would heal a point of damage to one friendly unit, but required a spellcaster to successfully make a casting roll. This also incurred the opportunity cost of using an action to cast it.
  • Divine Favor could be equipped on any model, chosen before the game started.
  • Bandage could be cast on any model, as long as it was within range of the spellcaster.
  • Divine Favor was unique (only one per army).
  • Multiple copies of Bandage could be purchased by the same army.

The details for successfully casting a Bandage spell made it an interesting part of army-building – a meaningful choice about how to spend your points. Perhaps those points you’re thinking of spending on casters and Bandage spells would be better spent on making your units harder to damage rather than healing them afterwards, or on offensive capabilities so they have a better chance of killing enemy units before being damaged themselves?

Rather than buying a Bandage spell, you could spend the same amount of points on an item that would accomplish the same thing, only better –no action or casting roll required! Divine Favor was clearly the optimal choice for your first 10 points, and a decision where the optimal choice is clear is not a meaningful one.

The only question was on which model to equip Divine Favor, but it would invariably be an important, powerful model; 10 points spent on making your warlord or hero that much tougher to kill was a much better use than giving it to a lowly foot soldier. For example, an average Warlord might cost 160 points and be able to take four points of damage before being killed, which works out to 40 points per damage track (Warlord’s term for “hit points,” basically). Why would you not spend 10 points to essentially add another DT to one of your most important units? One fairly unique aspect of Warlord that makes those 10 points even more valuable is that models’ stats degrade as they take damage; so keeping a model damage-free a little bit longer, as Divine Favor does, is much more valuable than merely keeping it alive but with lots of damage.

In order for the question of whether or not to take Divine Favor to be a meaningful choice, it should probably have cost somewhere between 25-35 points – more than Bandage, but still cheap enough to always be tempting; probably a worthwhile choice in most situations, but not clearly the optimal one. Alternatively, another solution would have been to make it a “free” piece of equipment that everyone got, skipping the first no-brainer decision and going right to determining how best to use it. I think the best solution is what Reaper ultimately decided to do, which was to remove Divine Favor from later editions of Warlord.

One of my favorite examples of tightening of game design based on the elimination of sub-optimal choices is from Warcraft 2. In the early release of the game, most custom scenarios for online matches started you with a set amount of gold and a single peasant with which to construct your base. Given that a town hall was required in order to recruit more peasants to collect more gold to ultimately build the rest of your town and recruit your army, the town hall was the optimal choice for the first building constructed. This meant that the first two minutes of every match were spent sitting around waiting for your town hall to finish building. It appears that Blizzard realized this, as in later releases of the game , you would start online matches with your town hall already built. This was standard procedure by the time Warcraft 3 was released, and in that game, every race started with their version of the town hall and five workers. (Undead were the exception, starting with three cultists and a ghoul. This resulted both from and in other interesting game mechanics, but that’s going too far down the rabbit hole for this post.)

To reference an oft-used quote from Antoione de Saint-Exupéry: “Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” Meaningful choices make games fun; forcing a player to make a “choice” where the optimal decision is clear is tedious and unnecessary – a chore, not something fun. A great game must have interesting, meaningful choices at the core of its mechanics, and paring down unnecessary decisions certainly helps towards this end.  But there is more to creating a great game than solid, streamlined mechanics.