«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
The short series of actions described above reveal the basic instrumental structure of World of Warcraft for individual play: accumulating experience points and rewards by completing quests and slaying mobs. The higher the level, the stronger the character becomes and the broader your options become for additional quests and killing. The term ‘stronger’ does not necessarily – or only partly – refer to skill. In World of Warcraft, strength is measured through a large set of different abstract values, or attributes, describing a character’s level, its health, its agility 60 battlefields of negotiation during combat, the amount of damage its weapons inflict and so forth.33 It is here that the MMORPG’s historical roots in the war-gaming genre, as discussed in chapter one, manifest themselves. Increasing these attributes, which are communicated to the player through the UI in the form of data, means increasing a character’s overall defensive and offensive capabilities. Combined, the different values form a character’s “stats”; the better your stats, the stronger you are in the game.
I will discuss endgame play further below; what matters here is that the emphasis on increasing numerical values throughout the game in many ways controls the way players think of instrumental progress and success in the game. By measuring success through stats, World of Warcraft concretizes the accomplishments of a character as well as the players behind the character. Striving for the best possible stats for your character is a driving force of both individual and, eventually, group-based instrumental play. The accumulation of better stats forms the instrumental backbone of World of Warcraft, providing a constant incentive for improvement. There are always better items than the ones your characters has; even if you have earned, produced or bought the best items the game has on offer, Blizzard will add more to keep you busy through expansion packs and updates. The heavy reliance on stats therefore does not just concretize a player’s strength but also keeps players coming back for more (Paul 2010; Brown 2011). World of Warcraft is far from unique in the way it uses stats to create player incentive – many digital games have similar setups – and for many instrumentally oriented players it presents the main appeal of the game. In terms of control and agency, we should nevertheless remain attentive to the fact that World of Warcraft is a subscriptionbased game where continued play is beneficial to the game’s key stakeholder in terms of income. The focus on the incremental increase of stats through various challenges is a key part of what makes World of Warcraft’s endgame such a strong ‘rentention tool’, as game scholar Douglas Brown befittingly calls it (2011).
Character and item stats are not the only forms of data conveyed through the UI. Many actions related to combat, like damaging mobs or healing other players’ characters, are articulated through data visible within (or retrievable through) the UI. Players can see which of their powers are most effective not through diegetic means (character and mob models, for instance, do not show inflicted wounds) but through non-diegetic information. In chapter eleven, I will introduce a case study in which players analyze and use the UI information flows to such a degree part ii controlling the game that their play exists primarily on interface level only, allowing them to theorize about the algorithms driving World of Warcraft (a practice known as “theorycrafting”). As many of the algorithms responsible for the calculation and processing of the different data sets are hidden within the game’s code, players need to pay attention to UI data in order to optimize their performance. As Galloway points out: ‘To play [a] game means to play the code of the game. To win means to know
the system. And thus to interpret a game means to interpret its algorithm’ (2006:
90-91, emphasis in original). The emphasis on data interpretation and manipulation is therefore critical when trying to answer the question of how Blizzard controls play from the perspective of game design: it presents a system where players are trained and conditioned for certain dominant play practices.
The quest of progression As shown in the Valley of Trials introduction above, one key form of data needed to advance through the game are experience points, and the best way to acquire them is through quests. While many actions (including defeating mobs) yield experience points, quests represent by far the most efficient way to gain experience points to get to the highest level and, with that, to the endgame. The additional gear and monetary rewards from quests are also generally better than those pillaged from dead mobs. Quests are designed to guide progress through the game – both instrumentally and, as will be discussed in the last section of this chapter, fictionally. Even though the emphasis lies on performing continuous sequences of quests, it is possible to skip, circumvent or even ignore them entirely. The result is that, through quests, advancement is structured as an inverted tree model in which players decide which quest branches they want to follow, and in what order.
Like the classic quest in literature, computer game quests do not just tell a story but are meant to give a character – and therefore, in computer games, also the player – a clear goal by performing a task. The variety of quests found in games like World of Warcraft is extensive. As game scholar Espen Aarseth explains, questtasks can be place, time and/or objective-oriented, and quests themselves can be ‘weaved, mixed, parallelized and sequentialized’ (2005: 3). The mottled boar quest mentioned above, for instance, asks the player to venture further into a particular part of the Valley of Trials (place) to kill a specific number of boars (objective). You must complete this quest in order to qualify for new quests (sequence). These new quests can be pursued in any order, but pursuing several quests at the same time (parallel) is often the smartest thing to do if their objectives are located in the same area of the game world. To prevent players from getting lost in an endless supply of quests, characters are limited to a certain amount of quests at the same time through a quest log. They either need to finish the quests they are currently on or drop them if they want to pursue others.
62 battlefields of negotiation Even though a major part of World of Warcraft’s fiction is told through quests (including a character’s own place within the greater Warcraft narrative), they function as a means to an end – attaining experience points and gear in order to progress through the game. As literary scholar Rettberg notes, most players do not even pay attention to the narratives in World of Warcraft’s quests. They tend to gravitate towards external information databases like thottbot.com or wowhead.com for instrumental information on where to go or what to do in order to achieve the quest’s goals rather than deciphering this information from the quest’s story (Rettberg 2008).
Due to the quests’ instrumental function of providing players with a task to perform, Aarseth proposes the term ‘quest games’ as a replacement for ‘narrative games’ or similar terms describing games with narrative aspirations (2004, 2005).
In an effort to define the term ‘quest game’ itself, Aarseth distills the following:
A game with a concrete and attainable goal, which supersedes performance or the accumulation of points. Such goals can be nested (hierarchic), concurrent, or serial, or a combination of the above (2005: 2).35 In the case of World of Warcraft and similar games, it is hard to divorce the instrumental goals Aarseth mentions (performance; accumulation of points) from the quest goals. World of Warcraft’s quests are not designed to supersede performance or the accumulation of points, but they do form a substantial part of instrumental play. The point is, however, that quests are not necessarily or purely about storytelling.36 In World of Warcraft, quests also serve to guide and control a player’s movement and activities through the game. The more quests you perform (and mobs you kill), the higher your character’s level becomes. This process slowly opens up the range of possibilities for your character, both in terms of objectives (each quest leads to new quests) as well as in terms of spatial layout (the higher your level, the easier it becomes to travel to places that were previously too dangerous). This structure, which can be found in many MMORPGs, allows the game to feel emergent in nature while still containing sequences of events that players need to follow in order to acquire the best rewards. As explained in chapter one, the quest system also gives players a sense of short-term closure by pursuing quest goals and granting quantifiable outcomes that the game as a whole lacks (Salen & Zimmerman 2004: 81-82). You might not be able to finish World of Warcraft as a whole, but you can finish the parts of it you find important by doing quests.
As Aarseth points out, quests control players’ agendas, ‘forcing them to perform certain actions that might otherwise not have been chosen, thus reducing the possibility space offered by the game rules and the landscape’ (2005: 9). Media scholar Jill Walker Rettberg argues that World of Warcraft’s quests lean heavily part ii controlling the game on deferral (the constant promise of bigger, better rewards) and repetition (all quests can be followed by all players). Both deferral and repetition urge the player to advance through the game; players know that when they see a higher-level character walking around with a big, shiny axe, they know they too can obtain it if they invest the appropriate amount of time. While this situation might not
always make sense on a fictional level (as I will show below), in terms of instrumental game design it makes sense. As Rettberg explains:
[The] rhetorical figures of deferral and repetition are solutions to the problem of how to construct a game played by many people at once that needs to accommodate group play, solo play, and players who are at every possible point in the game (from newbie to highly experienced, from level 1 to level 70) – in the same game system and game world (2008: 182).
Quests keep players occupied at every point of the game. Even when they have run out of quests to perform individually, there are group quests and raid quests to accomplish, especially in the endgame. Quests are World of Warcraft’s carrots on a stick; ‘in a sense World of Warcraft is evidence that we humans have finally succeeded in creating something that we can desire endlessly, have entirely, and never consume (Rettberg 2008: 176). In terms of game design, the ‘we humans’ actually refers to Blizzard. The game is designed to create endless desire through deferral and repetition which, again, translates to players continuing to play instead of cancelling their subscriptions.
To further emphasize how World of Warcraft is structured to perpetuate endless play (and thus endless subscription pay), it is useful to look at the way the game foregoes the traditional “game over” scenario of digital games. In World of Warcraft, the player’s character simply cannot perish, at least not forever. Media scholar Lisbeth Klastrup has studied death in games, including World of Warcraft. She writes about the challenge of game design to provide a ‘form of death penalty severe enough that it results in a certain excitement, which forces players to take death seriously and play strategically to avoid it’, however, ‘they must not make it so harsh that players are scared away from the game at an early point in their gaming experience’ (2008: 146). In the specific case of World of Warcraft, death is designed to be as lenient as possible without being meaningless. When a character’s health points run out due to receiving too much damage from an opponent, it dies. The character’s death, however, is temporary. After being killed, a character enters a greyish ghost world; there are several resurrection options that allow the character to be brought back to the world of the living.37 Alive again, the only penalty is a certain amount of damage to the worn gear (which can be fixed for a price) and, in some cases, a temporary health and power reduction (‘resurrection sickness’). Death is designed as a nuisance but never a game breaker.38 64 battlefields of negotiation Through death penalty design, Blizzard has made mortality within World of Warcraft part of play, not an endpoint. Death becomes a learning experience, forcing players to rethink their strategy in order to prevent dying again – it presents us with a very literal example of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. It is also a way to ensure that players never give up the game because of their character’s demise. With no “game over” scenario to worry about and an endless supply of quests to do and rewards to collect, we could say that players themselves are “being played” by the game’s design and coaxed to continue playing – and therefore paying subscription fees – indefinitely.