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Exclusive: Richard Bartle on how he'd make World of Warcraft better

Michael Zenke

Or: The Grandfather of MUDs talks the Mother of all MMOs

Earlier in the year this blogger had the chance to attend the Independent MMO Game Developer's Conference, the second annual event held in Minneapolis, MN. A number of luminaries in the field made an appearance, such as Scott Hartsman (former Senior Producer for EverQuest 2) and Brian Green (best known for his work on Meridian 59). Also in attendance was Dr. Richard Bartle, the much-admired co-developer of the original MUD1 online environment. Along with Roy Trubshaw, Mr. Bartle essentially pioneered the field of MUDs. As these games gave rise to MMOs as we know them today, we would most likely not be enjoying the website without his efforts.

Join us as we sit down for a conversation about the big kid on the block: World of Warcraft. Some time ago Dr. Bartle made the crack that he'd "shut down" Blizzard game in an effort to improve the industry. Though he was only making an elaborately illustrative joke at the time, he's gotten a lot of flack for it. Today we have the other side of that coin: what Blizzard could honestly do to make the game even better. Click on through below the cut for Dr. Richard Bartle's view on Karazahn, playing MMOs as a player, and his overall view on the near future of the genre's darlings.

Thank you for speaking with us, sir. What are you up to right now?

"A lot of the time I spend talking to highly dedicated, enthusiastic, intelligent individuals with ideas of their own discussing virtual worlds in general."

I am consulting with people. I officially spend about half my time teaching. About 10 percent of the students I teach perhaps have got an actual career in computer games. Of the rest – if they were to do their work and pull their socks up and listen to the lectures and respect programming - maybe a third of them are actually pretty good to the point where I would employ them in that field

A lot of the time I spend either talking to highly dedicated, enthusiastic, intelligent individuals with ideas of their own discussing virtual worlds in general, or I'm chasing people saying "you're supposed to have handed in an assignment. You were supposed to come to this lecture. You're supposed to have made up a poster." That's "half of my life", but it takes a bit longer than that. The other half of my time is spent as a consultant. I spend most of that time doing research or grading papers or posting on blogs or so on. I only actually go out to companies every maybe three or four times a year. It depends – the problem is that I'm based in the UK and there isn't a huge MMO development community there. They're also reticent about calling external consultants because that's a sign of weakness.

In the US, I used to get a lot more business here, but now it's got so many people have a lot more experience on the ground. I have a lot of experience, but because I do consult with CI, I'm up with things. I haven't spent five years working on a single graphical virtual world and can tell you what database tables to be using. I'm not the design kind of firm consultancy. I've got two consultancies I'm with at the moment, neither of which I can talk about because they made me sign an NDA. In general, the consultancies are with companies which aren't household names, though sometimes they are household names. Not Blizzard, I will say that.

If they asked, would you be interested in working with them?

As a consultant, yes, certainly. There's a lot of things I could tell them about their game, which I'm sure they may be aware of. Why would Blizzard ask my opinion? Well, sometimes people ask my opinion just so they can say this is what Richard Bartle thinks. Then he can take the flack. Other times, people ask my opinion because they know the answer really but just want someone else to say it so they can validate their opinion. Sometimes they do it because they actually value my opinion.

I'm talking about the big companies here. Sometimes they will do it because they need an external consultant to come along and say what they think because that's on the production schedule. Other times, they would do it because they actually want someone from the outside to look at their game design and tell them what they feel is – that they may have missed because they've been working on it for so long that what they see isn't necessarily what's there. They've got a picture in their mind, but it might not be available.

We've notice that World of Warcraft seems to be the game that you talk about on your website. Is that generally the game you're primarily playing right now?

"I'm not saying that playing virtual worlds is painful – obviously not. [It is like] saying to an author 'do you like writing books?' Yes. Okay, well, here's a dictionary. Would you like to copy it out? I don't want to copy out a dictionary. I want to write out my own books."

Oh, no. I stopped playing it the moment I got three characters to level 70. Why did I stop? I'm a consultant in the virtual world industry, and people say to me what game do you play? And what I used to say to them is I can't play these games because I'm a designer. When I play them, I only see it from the designer point of view. I can't play them because I'm a designer. I get designer fun. I get everything I want from a couple hours of playing or standing behind and watching somebody else play. I know what's going on because I see the design. If you sit next to Steven Spielberg and watch a movie, you and he see a different movie because he's a director.

You're an audience member. What you see is different. For me, that's what I used to say. What games do you play? I don't play any. Why would I play them? I want to build them. I don't want to play them. So they say "Huh. You can't play them!" So, what would it take to convince somebody – to persuade somebody that I was able to play? "What do you know about these games? You don't even play them."

That is actually a legitimate charge. If a journalist wrote this dreadful piece about games then you could say to them "what do you know about these things?" You know, you write these articles in the newspaper scaring people off and you don't even play them. How can you possibly do that? Now, their defense could be well, I write anti-drug articles, but I don't actually take any drugs. So that's a valid defense. But from a point of view of somebody who's actually claiming that virtual worlds are good and a force for the advancement of humanity, saying I don't play these games – well, why should we listen to you?

Okay. So I will play World of Warcraft just for you, and I will work up all my characters – I will work up three characters to level 60. I work up two of my characters to level 60 and one to level 55. Then they bring out the expansion. Damn. Okay. So take all three of them up to level 70. I now have three level 70 characters in World of Warcraft, and the moment that third one made it, I stopped playing because how much do I have to do? It was actually painful.

Now, I'm not saying that playing virtual worlds is painful – obviously not. I love creating. It's like saying to an author "do you like writing books?" Yes. Okay, well, here's a dictionary. "Would you like to copy it out?" I don't want to copy out a dictionary. I want to write out my own books. Now, I have three level 70 characters, and that's it. Stop at level 70.

What classes did you play?

The first one I chose as a paladin because I was playing on US servers. I knew I was going to be playing solo. I looked through the designs and I thought "they've made this paladin class to be played solo, and it's easier than the other classes." So I'll be a paladin. Then the second class I tried was a rogue because that was completely different to paladin, and I thought I'll use this one to do all the quests I didn't do with the other one.

Well, I got up to level 60 on that rogue but not until I'd got two 70s by then because it was all about – a couple of points. Yeah, now that's a good game mechanic. Having abandoned my – I tried a hunter, but I didn't really engage with the pet. Then I thought okay, paladin *again*?. I'll go for DPS. So mage – shall I go for the frost mage or for the fire mage or for the arcane mage? And I looked at it and I thought it looked like frost mage is pretty good for defense for solo play, fire is pretty good for instances – I'm going to go for arcane because nobody's an arcane mage.

"I just had broadband installed, and there was a problem with the broadband. I was getting disconnected every five minutes. I played five minutes as a warlock, got disconnected, played five minutes as the priest, got disconnected – by that time, the warlock had been automatically logged off. I leveled up to 20 in both that way."

At least that way, I'll learn some things about the way the rest of the game is all set up through the interactions of this. So I worked up an arcane mage. Then comes the burning crusade expansion – all of a sudden, arcane's good. Everyone's arcane. I thought it was only me pumping arcane missile. Everyone's doing it now. I'm arcane with a bit of firing so I can pyro. Anyway, that was that.

The final one I thought okay, it really doesn't matter which one I'm going to do. I didn't want to do the rogue because leatherworking was the rogue's skill, and that is not a happy skill. Killing tigers in Stranglethorn Vale the whole time. I like Stranglethorn Vale – very well done. That's actually my favorite zone, Stranglethorn Vale, from a design point of view. I have to spend all my living waking hours there because that's where all the things I want to kill are. No thanks.

I started working up a warlock and a priest, and the reason I did two is because I just had broadband installed, and there was a problem with the broadband. I'd had it about six months or so, but I was getting disconnected every five minutes. I played five minutes as a warlock, got disconnected, played five minutes as the priest, got disconnected – by that time, the warlock had been automatically logged off. I leveled up to 20 in both that way, and then my complaints to British Telecom worked, and I got three hours of the warlock.

So I took the warlock up, and actually, of all the classes, warlock is the one I – I won't say that I most enjoyed it. It was the least displeasurable because there was a lot more you could do with the warlock. It wasn't just punching the same buttons. So that's what I've got. With the next expansion I'm sure I'll take them up again. Just give me the points.

If you were consulting with Blizzard, what would you tell them? From a high level viewpoint, what are the three or four things that they're doing wrong?

The first thing I would say to them is why is the auction house sell only? Why doesn't it got a buy? Why can't you say I want to buy stuff? You can only say I want to sell stuff. They've made that decision. Why? It's not apparent. I want to know why they've done that, because in knowing why they've done that, that would tell me how they saw the economics – the way the economy was working.

Did they do it because they thought it would be exploitable? I don't think so, because the current thing's exploited. Why didn't they do it? There must have been a reason why they didn't do it. That's one thing I would want to ask.

The looking for group mechanics also need work. The way it works is I had this level 70 character who is one kill short of getting her tier .5 dungeon set. She's one kill short. It's the level 2 dungeon set. She's got to go into the black scary rock mountain. UBRS, basically. So I want to go into UBRS for this one final fight with this guy. I summon this guy up and then we all kill the guy and it's gonna be great. How do I get a group for that? I don't get a group for that because I can't even say I want to be in a UBRS group because it's not even part of the mechanic. That whole looking for group mechanism has always been corrupt.

The best time for grouping was probably when you had to be in the same zone as others to join up. It made people move around a bit, now they've made the looking for group channel essentially unusable. You've got this special half-baked looking for group mechanism. I'd complain about that. I'm not a great fan of instances – I'm certainly not a great fan of 40 player instances. I'm not a fan of 25 player instances, and I'll tell you what I'm most certainly not a great fan of. I'm not a great fan of putting hardcore attendance instances at the start of a new expansion. I'm talking to you, Kharazan, because that was so obviously a guild breaker. It's just so obvious. You get attuned and then you only get to go in with the same people over the space of a week, but there's no way to PUG it? You expect that to help the game in what way?

"There was absolutely no need for Kharazan to have that kind of hardcore raid attendance thing. There was no need for it. Why can't you PUG it? It's got five different sections. There could have been five separate instances. Why?"

That was a bad idea. That was a really bad idea. And yet Kharazan is frequently commented on by the Blizzard designers when they speak about it as being one of the great success stories of Burning Crusade. If they were to invite me for my opinion, which of course they're now getting for free thanks to you, so they won't be inviting me.

I would ask them if they actually have this kind of "we're going to piss on you because we can" attitude that they seem to have with Kharazan? Because if you have, really, you're causing yourself a lot of trouble there. There was absolutely no need for Kharazan to have that kind of hardcore raid attendance thing. There was no need for it. Why can't you PUG it? It's got five different sections. There could have been five separate instances. Why? What were you trying to say? Just because it's big doesn't mean it's better.

Now, they may have actually had legitimate reasons for doing that, but I can't see what they were. They may have said "yeah, we wanted to shake up the guild system." They may have thought it all through, in which case – well, I may argue with the motivation, but I can't argue with the implementation. I mean, it was bad enough having to run the flaming third world time thing. I think 18 times I had to run it before I got the achievement for that.

Because I was a mage, they kept making me try to keep the, and I was not able to keep down those ads. I should have been a warlock to start with. I could take those adds down like that, but not with my mage. Anyway, when you're playing something that isn't a lot of fun and it gets even less fun, then you really start to feel the pain.

The only other question we had: Is there anything you are playing for fun right now?

Well, no MMO is going to be fun. I'm not saying that World of Warcraft isn't a fun game. My daughter plays World of Warcraft and she's doing quite well. She's in the level 40s now. She's got a warlock in the 40s and a druid in the nearly 40s. She just wants to get that change shape thing.

Did you know one in 100,000 people are psychopaths? Well, you do now. So figure out how many psychopaths there are in World of Warcraft. I don't want any of them actually coming around to me in the belief that I am saying dreadful things about World of Warcraft. What I'm saying is as a game designer, I have terrible problems in experiencing the kind of fun the players have because I've gone past it. I understand it. If I didn't understand it, how could I design for it? If I could only understand it by experiencing it, how could I understand what every single other player who isn't me would think about it? As a designer, I'm not designing for me. I'm designing for everybody.

Because I'm designing for everybody, I need to understand how everybody likes the games. Being – if I was playing it and enjoying it myself as a player, then that would color my judgment of what it meant to play the game. The only reason that I played up to level 70 was credentials. That's the only reason I did it. And now I have those credentials, and when Lich Kingdom comes out, I shall have to requalify myself. I'm looking forward to that as much as I was the Burning Crusade, let's put it that way.

Are you planning on playing games like Age of Conan and Warhammer when they come out?

I've already played Warhammer. It was called World of Warcraft. Age of Conan – that's PVP. Wow, gosh, PVP – it's pretty hardcore, PVP, isn't it? No. When you played [older MUDs] you got killed after three months of playing, your character was gone. Yeah, hardcore PVP – yeah, we're hard, aren't we? We're evil. No. You don't know anything. I might have a look at it from a point of view of seeing what things – the class balances are like, seeing how they've implemented the – I really ought to write up a book on how to read a virtual world so that I have a vocabulary in order to explain it to people. But there are a number of things you can do with player versus player, and I want to see the way they've done it not because whether it's cool or not but because of you chose that way. Now, why did you choose that way?

"They're designers. They've got millions. They must have known about the other ways, but they didn't do it the other way. They did it this way. Why did they do it that way?"

You chose that way because you've got a particular vision for your virtual world. Your particular vision for your virtual world is saying something. You made this the center of your virtual world. That tells me something already in advance. What it tells me is you want to compete with the games that don't have it so that you're carving your niche. But why did you choose that niche? You chose that niche or a particular reason. How did you implement it? You're trying to rip off Dark Age of Camelot?

Well, that probably was a motivation, but there were a number of things you could have done. EVE Online, for example, was player versus player, and it's got player created units or guilds. You're doing it that way, and now you're saying things that way. But when you create it, you're actually saying something through the design. What is it you're trying to say? Why are you trying to say it? How are you trying to articulate something? This is from the designer's point of view what I really want to know. What are they trying to say? Why have they done it this way? Did they know about the other ways?

They're designers. They've got millions. They must have known about the other ways, but they didn't do it the other way. They did it this way. Why did they do it that way? That's what I mentioned earlier with the World of Warcraft. Why did you do that with the auction house? They'll have an answer, but I don't know what it is. That as a designer is infuriating. I want to know what it is. The other games, I doubt I'll play them. I'll certainly follow them in the forums and find out what people who I respect their opinions think of it.

I may play test – if something looks like it's going to be the next World of Warcraft, then I would. The only reason I chose World of Warcraft was because it had gazillions of players.

It means nothing to me which one I play. That's how I work as a designer. When I actually play games, the games I play are either ones I created myself or they're ones that are non-MMOs. They tend to be things like obscure European – when I say European, I mean continental European games that just don't make it elsewhere – things like The Patrician and some things like Victoria. They're all PC games. I don't play any console games, because that would mean getting a console, and then my kids would play them.

Thank you, sir. We really appreciate your time.

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