Good things seem to come in threes -- at least, they do in the case of interviews with the intriguing folks from <unassigned variable> in the UK. Recent 15 Minutes of Fame subject Alice Taylor not only provided a rousing good interview herself, but she did exactly what we ask our readers to do at the top of every column: she tipped us off to players we want to hear more about. First, she passed us along to her GM, games designer James Wallis; next, she introduced us to this week's gaming insider.
If you've had the chance to read Alice's and James' profiles, you're sure to be grinning and settling into your chair right about now, in anticipation of yet another witty, savvy peek into WoW culture, gaming and geekery. You'd be right on target. Here he is, direct from Finland: Sulka Haro, the lead designer of Habbo, a popular virtual world for teens that attracts some 11 million monthly uniques.
Main character Unger
Guild <unassigned variable>
Server EU Nordrassil-H
15 Minutes of Fame: We understand you've been a gamer from childhood. What's your personal gaming history? What games influenced your game design thinking?
Unger/Sulka Haro: I've played a ton of games both on arcade, computer, consoles and tabletop, and done a fair bit of live action roleplaying. I ended being one of the founding members of the Finnish Live Roleplaying Association, which is still going strong, although I haven't participated in a long while.
My soft spot is MMOs. I played Ultima Online way too much when it came out and have been on and off various MMOs ever since. I avoided WoW when it originally came out, as I knew I'd spend too much time on it if I did start to play, but ended giving up when I got invited into my guild.
As a game designer yourself, it sounds as if you spend a fair amount of time considering the design and technical aspects of WoW as you play. Is it hard to relax and just enjoy the game? Do you always feel to an extent that you are working/analyzing/gathering ideas?
I have to confess I'm a bit of a min-maxer, so I'm not sure if I relax when playing the same way as someone else might relax with a game. The analysis part of my brain keeps scanning the game rules when I play, and I tend to quit playing games when I figure out the mechanics to the point where I can bypass the game's dressing and beat the rule engine. The relaxing part of the gaming is that I can focus on the game 100% and use it as total escapism. This is one of the main reasons why I enjoy MMOs (and multiplayer games in general) so much -- the challenge of the game quite often comes from the unexpected behavior of the players and not the game itself.
Looking at games analytically tends to happen more when I'm seeing a new game (or in WoW's case, a new update), but the active scanning is pretty quickly replaced by this passive scanning that occasionally notices some nice detail that I mentally note down.
Also you should notice that Habbo (the product I'm mainly working on) isn't strictly a game, so most of the things that are applicable for my work that I see in WoW are social structures and behavior that are emergent in relation to the game. Also, if I weren't playing MMOs, it'd be hard to get a lot of culture related to MMOs -- for example, it'd be pretty hard to get a lot of the humor in The Guild. I guess what I'm saying is, I couldn't possibly be a professional in my field without actually playing MMOs myself. :D
You've been critical of Blizzard for not updating older content. Is Cataclysm's retooling of original Azeroth along the lines of what you've always wanted to see?
Ah yes, Blizzard totally pwned me on this one. I've been whining to a ton of people about Bliz ignoring the older content, and now I can't do this anymore! Thing I'm particularly interested in seeing with Cataclysm is whether things related to lower-level crafting skills or making money as a noob is going to become any easier. The game as it is today has been balanced separately for levels 1 to 60, 60 to 70 and 70 to 80, and if they want to make adopting WoW easier for noobs, they'd have to rebalance the lower levels in relation to the latest game. Given the rule changes, that might happen, but it's going to be fairly massive amount of work for them to ensure leveling from 1 to 85 is enjoyable to all classes.
That's a very tough question, actually! An obvious candidate is of course a player housing system, but that'd be quite massive effort to put in, in a manner that made sense for the game as a whole.
Looking at smaller things, my guild found out earlier that it's actually extremely hard to find proper socializing spaces in WoW. After much searching, our glorious guild leader found that Wayfarer's Rest in Silvermoon is one of the only inns in the whole game that actually has tables and chairs where you can sit down with a group and talk. Or organize a formal dress dinner, as it were. Most the spaces are filled, so they don't look empty or have unsittable chairs, etc., so you can't really go and sit down and just talk. It might sound silly that this sort of a setting is required to socialize, but it seems the brain is really wired so that standing up even in a virtual world makes conversations shorter.
We understand that you're not a fan of Blizzard's implementation of phased content in WoW. Is it the idea or concept itself that you have trouble with, or is there something about Blizzard's implementation that makes you uncomfortable?
How I dislike phasing (as Bliz calls it). The mechanic is excellent for storytelling purposes but breaks the game. The problem is, it makes WoW even more of a massively single-player game, except for the phased five-man quests, which are incredibly hard to complete nowadays (given guildies can't help you if you're phased, and there's relatively little amount of players who still need to complete those quests online at any given time). So Bliz's announcement of them using phasing extensively in Cataclysm sounds like trouble.
I totally loved the Wrathgate cinematics, which obviously are all about phasing, so I'm not against using the tech as such. However, the technique is used quite extensively already, and it makes WoW feel even more of a massively single player game than what it is already. I've been flying to guildies a number of times in Northrend only to find out they're phased and I can't actually meet them, which has been quite irritating.
Where I think the phasing really falls apart is the phased multiplayer quests. I still haven't completed some of the quests in Icecrown, since I can't get a group together to complete the quests. Most of the guild members of appropriate level have already done the quests and can't enter the quest phase, and PUGging for quests just doesn't really work very well, especially when you want to find more than one dude to help you.
If I can't play WoW as a multiplayer game, why bother in the first place? I have better single-player games installed than WoW's enforced single-player activities. Allowing people in the same group to always enter the same phase might remedy this quite a bit.
You've noted that WoW's economy seems to be in an especially awkward stage of development. Why do you think this has happened, and what do you think might be the best way out?
It seems that an increasingly large part of the game's population is only interested in the highest levels of content, making it hard to make money on anything but the stuff that interests people in the end game. I wouldn't probably complain about this if I had endless amount of time to play, but I'm myself in an awkward position of having reached a point in WoW where the only way to progress is endgame raiding, and most of the raids take longer than I can afford to play. ;)
Your raiding time is very limited?
Most raid content requires play sessions that last for hours and hours. The people I typically play with are in a different time zone, so I usually don't get to enter an instance before 10 p.m. -- and knowing my daughter tends to wake around 6:30 a.m., staying up late over midnight is asking for trouble. Or maybe I'm just getting old! :D
It sounds as if you're experiencing the typical working parent's struggle to find time for WoW.
Most of the people in the guild are in a time zone couple hours earlier than me, so the raids tend to start very late. On evenings when I know I'll go to work the next day and know I have to rise from the bed latest at 7 a.m. when my lovely daughter wakes up, it's a bit hard to justify staying up raiding 'til 2 a.m. As a result, I've been raiding way less than I expect most people who've played as much as I have, have raided. If I ever joined a raiding guild, I'd be thrown out the next day. :P
Maybe a different guild would help?
<unassigned variable> is the only WoW guild I ever belonged to, and I can't see quitting the guild -- except once for 10 minutes or so, when I had a complete brainfart and typed /gquit when wanted to unjoin a party! I guess this goes on to show how important the social aspect of WoW is.
Heh, James mentioned in his own interview with us that there's only been one guildremove over the years, an accidental one -- and here's your confession. Guess that explains that situation!
Heh, yes. :)
What might we find Unger doing on a typical night of WoW?
The latest thing I've found very enjoyable is getting heroic dungeon achievements, the ones where you need to do something special to get the achievement. Second thing, I've been spending way too much time on recently is using Excel spreadsheets coupled with Lootrank.com, Gear Wishlist and Be Imba, etc., trying to figure how to get as cool gear as possible with as little raiding as possible. It's tough, but I've raised my DPS by a thousand (from horrible to ok) since I started doing this, which warms my min-maxing heart a great deal.
Any other games you're dabbling in right now?
I'm in Warhammer as well. My main is Snotbagel the Squig Herder. He's not doing too well, but I'm sort of emotionally attached to the little fella, so I'm not switching just yet. :)
Also, I just went in to check the latest episode of A Tale in the Desert. ATITD is an awesome experiment in MMO gameplay. I have deep respect for the people running the game.
Thanks for taking the time to visit with us. Hope you get some good sleep, good raiding and good min-maxing in soon!
"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" - neither did we, until we talked with these players. From an award-winning author and an Oscar-winning 3-D effects director to a bunch of guys who get together for dinner and group raiding in person every week, catch it on 15 Minutes of Fame.