On Worse is Better

I’ve mentioned before that JWZ was one of my blogging heroes; but one of the most dramatic influences he had on me was introducing me to Richard Gabriel’s essay, The Rise of “Worse is Better”. Even though it’s about Lisp and Scheme versus Unix and C++, it’s an excellent, thought-provoking read which looks at why certain computer languages work and thrive, and why others fail. You should read it.

How many of you still use Scheme after college? I know I haven’t touched it or MATLAB since COMP 101, but I’ve sure used Python, Java, and C/C++ in my career as a professional programmer. Is Scheme still useful? Yes. It is widespread? Not outside of academia.

The core idea of the Worse-is-Better philosophy is that simple implementations which achieve most of the desired functionality are superior to complex implementations which achieve the whole thing. UNIX is really a collection of small programs which do certain things adequately, assembled and refined over the years until it’s a rock-solid operating system. But it’s not the stability which makes it so ubiquitous – it’s how it can run on almost anything. Microsoft figured this out with the NT to XP transition, and the success of XP – and relative failure of Vista – should be object lessons

Warcraft, in many ways, is an adherent to the Worse-Is-Better philosophy. The cartoonish graphics and relatively low pixel counts have allowed Warcraft to spread, like a virus, on computers which would not normally be considered gaming machines. The graphics degrade well because the style is simple and doesn’t require high resolution to convey the desired image. More processing power adds better effects but isn’t a requirement to play.

Simplicity is good for adoption. At any time, half of the computers out there are below the median, and if you are spending marketing dollars to get people to try your game you don’t want their machine to be an impediment. Games that don’t support certain operating systems or have high graphics requirements automatically start off at a disadvantage because they limit their customer base. This is a tradeoff from a development standpoint – you can’t port your game to every operating system, you can’t support everything, but you have to support enough to be profitable. I probably would have tried SW:TOR if it had a Mac client, but it didn’t, and I didn’t feel like buying a Windows 7 license and running Boot Camp to try it out. Bioware made a conscious decision to not support Macs to keep their development costs low, which eliminated me as a potential customer. That’s an acceptable tradeoff! It happens all the time. You have to focus your efforts to ship a product.

But that development decision had implications down the road.

Yesterday’s WoW patch (5.0.4) brought with it the new graphical requirements for Mists of Pandaria. It was a bit of a surprise to me, since my laptop – which had run the Beta fine – was suddenly unable to run Warcraft. I wrote about how it affects me personally on tumblr, but I don’t want to dwell on it. It’s done, I can’t use the laptop, my playtime is reduced until I upgrade it (which isn’t happening soon). Other people have it worse than I do – their only computer can’t play their favorite game, and I feel really bad for them.

I think it’s more interesting to consider the bind Warcraft’s longevity has put Blizzard’s developers into. Every year that WoW continues is another year where technology gets better. If we follow Moore’s Law, computers today are 16 times more powerful than when WoW launched, and the game competition being developed now can take advantage of that increase. Warcraft is competing against games that can count on a computer having an order of magnitude more resources than when it was first designed.

In many ways, that’s Warcraft’s strength, because it’s a social game, and mass adoption is key to continued success. I’ve said before that Warcraft is really a video game bolted on top of a social network. But that strength is also a weakness as the game ages, because WoW competes in the market with those other games. It has to adapt, which means that events like yesterday happen. Customers log in and discover that they’re suddenly unable to play because their computer is no longer good enough. All the marketing costs to acquire that customer, all the support and development costs to keep that customer, are lost if they choose not to upgrade their computer.

Consider that cost for a minute. Blizzard incurs a cost to acquire a customer (marketing dollars, core game development, retail packaging and distribution) and an operational cost (customer support, continued development, server hosting and operational upgrades, corporate expenses). The customer has an initial startup cost (buying the game) and an operational cost (subscription fees). This is all pretty straightforward in the short term.

In the long term, however, both sides incur costs to support the game. Blizzard has to spend development resources to maintain old operating system versions, old hardware models. Customers have to invest in hardware to be able to continue playing the game. (The initial investment in buying a computer which can play the game is often overlooked, because it’s the very first part of market selection – “does this person have a computer?” – and is a fundamental assumption.) Increasing the minimum requirement for the game brings this specific assumption into question – does the player still have a computer which can play the game – and also increases the cost for the player. Instead of $15 a month, now the player needs to look at it and say, should I spend $1-2k on a new computer so I can continue to play WoW?

If we assume a 36 month lifetime of a given computer upgrade, it’s $27.78-$55.56 additional a month for the customer. So at a minimum, purchasing a $1k computer to continue playing Warcraft is effectively the same as spending $45 a month on on sub.

Warcraft (or any software package which forces one) gets an unfair part of the blame in this decision to upgrade. There are usually other reasons to upgrade a computer which factor in to the decision (faster CPUs, more hard drive space, more memory) – but psychologically, the triggering event is the one which we focus upon. If I want to play Warcraft on a laptop, I need to get a new laptop. That’s the decision some people are faced with today. They aren’t saying, my web browsing is kinda slow or running a lot of applications (they probably are). They’re looking at Blizzard and Warcraft and going, is this worth an additional $30-60 a month? Do I have the cash to do this? Oh god Christmas is coming up and I was going to get Mists and now I can’t play Warcraft holy fuck what am I going to do I wanted PANDAS.

But computers are sixteen times more powerful than they were when Warcraft launched. That’s amazing!

This is a really interesting aspect of the game industry, and the MMO industry, which I don’t think gets enough attention. How do you have a subscription model where, over the long term, your customers will churn due to equipment requirements? What happens when your product is still going strong almost a decade later? How do you get the broadest adoption?

Worse-is-better is the answer.

Warcraft has taken a lot of heat for its cartoonish graphics, its low-polygon models, its antiquated engine. But that art style, that engine, has had good survival characteristics in the marketplace. I think other game developers and game enthusiasts alike should take note of it – long term success requires broad adoption over a variety of platforms. Your product needs to be easy to port, easy to adapt. Making a hugely complex jewel of a game which can only run on 5% of the computers out there is not going to be as profitable as making a Facebook game.

There’s a somewhat unique balancing act here that Blizzard has to walk. They are tied to old technology that has good survival characteristics, yet have to compete against new tech that can be shinier, faster, fancier. Much like UNIX, I don’t think that a competitor who follows Blizzard’s model is going to usurp them. MMO game clients which overly rely upon the customer’s hardware will keep running into adoption problems. Thin clients with broad platform support are much more of a threat than a traditional MMO because they can be adopted quickly. Put most of the graphical processing up in the cloud and watch the same game get ported to consoles, PCs, smart TVs, smartphones, microwaves, in-car entertainment centers – who knows where they will end up next?

I know I don’t. Not really, not yet.

But I do know that the game industry needs to start thinking more about the lessons Common Lisp taught more than 30 years ago, because asking your customers to purchase new hardware to continue your revenue stream is a tough sell.


Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual

22 responses to “On Worse is Better

  1. It’s sad to hear this Cyn. I play a 2008 iMac and I’m now crossing my fingers as the patch has been deployed today in Europe.

    OTOH, I wish I could play GW2 without buying a windows license and installing bootcamp. Why are companies so obnoxious?

    • It’s fine, I’m adapting, at least this means my UI no longer needs to be designed for two different monitor sizes.

      I’ve looked at GW2 – it’s interesting and I’d like to give it a try. I’m not so interested that I’d put Windows on a personal machine, though.

  2. To be honest I’d upgraded my system a few months ago for other reasons so I didn’t notice this change. And that’s a bit of a problem. Other than the character select screen I didn’t see much of a difference, I’ll have to pay attention tonight.

    As to the future it’s probably HTML5 or like capability. Use a very thin client, perhaps just the browser, and do the lifting on the servers. Most players have reliable-enough networking to support the model and man does it make updates easier. The goal for the next designer looking for a competitive MMO should be commodity hardware rather than boutique systems but no one wins critical acclaim for accessibility.

    • Alright what about those in other countries? Overseas? That model doesn’t really work well for them.

      Hell, what about those of us with monthly bandwidth caps (i.e. everyone but americans it seems) something like that would chew through our limit

      • Depends on where the server farms are and which countries we’re talking about. Dividing the world into US and non-US isn’t always helpful here – most countries in Europe have better broadband speeds and network penetration than the US, while Asia/Pac is a mix of high and low penetration rates. Best high speed internet in the world is in South Korea, but that doesn’t mean that an ANZAC server location can take advantage of it.

    • The goal for the next designer looking for a competitive MMO should be commodity hardware rather than boutique systems but no one wins critical acclaim for accessibility.

      Yes, very well said!

  3. On the topic of graphics, Shamus Young (http://shamusyoung.com) of Twenty Sided blog has been taking a look at graphics and other elements in a few moderns MMOs, mostly as they compare to Star Wars, which he was extremely disappointed in. I mention this because he mentions how even though the graphics in Star Wars are technically and undeniably “better” than WoW’s, they still fall flat because of things like composition, color usage, and general design, where as Warcraft’s are cartoony but they just WORK on an artistic and creative and fantastical level.

    Might find it an interesting read! The post about SWTOR’s art is here: http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=16538

    • This is a great link, Rades! I have not been reading that blog, and I’m going to fix that now.

      I didn’t find SWTOR’s art all that compelling, but I figured that it was because I wasn’t interacting with it (since I didn’t play, Mac user sad and forever alone.) Interesting to see other people write about it.

  4. Sorry about your laptop situation. That’s gotta be frustrating as hell.

    When Cata came out, my laptop could no longer handle all the graphics being slung about in 5-man boss fights. Didn’t overheat, but the frame rate dropped to the point where usually the first clue I had that I was standing in Bad was that I died. Not enjoyable.

    I remeber blowing a head gasket when one of Ghostcrawler’s posts talked about it being a good thing that all of the chief class designers were heroic-mode raiders. When the people making decisions only experience the life of the top 10%, it’s often not good for the other 90%. I cannot help but suspect that similarly a lot of the people making graphics decisions are running on fairly modern GPUs. If one or two of them was required to play on a three-year-old consumer laptop, there might be some different choices being made.

    • Thanks – I’ve had a day to come to terms with the laptop, I wasn’t angry about it but it did depress me. I’ll make it work, and will find ways to play with my friends still. If nothing else it’ll give me more time to write. 🙂

      There have been various client bugs which contribute to overheating. I think that if it gets fixed I could use the laptop for chatting and very basic questing, but I’m seriously worried about getting motion sick with it. It’s a very disorienting experience to have the graphics be that wonky.

      My wife works for a large online community management team and she’s constantly calling out developers for designs which don’t work on her little laptop screen. There’s data which shows that screen sizes ARE getting bigger, but that doesn’t mean that you should ignore the impact on 13″ and 15″ laptops. Website design benefits from worse is better, too.

  5. You can be reasonably sure that Blizzard know *exactly* what computers their customers are using, and how many this would affect. But you made me think about how many computers I’ve owned since I started playing, it’d be at least 5. The oldest (i’m playing on) an iMac 27 Mid 2010, newest a MBP late 2011. Before that it was a Dell Alienware, then a series of generic Windows boxes.

    • Oh, I’m sure they did. Or at least how many were in the Beta, and this was a conscious decision. I think it’s a note in their favor that they have such a wide range of machine support! I just think the implications are really interesting.

  6. Thought provoking post Cyn. It is a fine balance they need to strike to remain accessible yet “current” and the style of WoW’s art gives them a wide buffer here.

    When I logged in last night, I noticed that shadows looked better and my characters looked more crisp. The game was running slower though that could be addon issues or more people on than usual.

    It would be great if there was an option to drop the number of particles on spells and effects other than your own. Ditto for model detail. This would help older machines a lot.

    I know there is an option that emphasizes your own effects but I want to severely de-emphasize effects other than mine instead.

    Offtopic but sound too… being in melee on boss fights is downright painful compared to doing ranged dps or healing. An option to attenuate combat sounds not directly related to me would be nice.

    • I’d love that sound fix, and making “your stuff” louder than everyone else’s stuff. Warrior tanking is very audible, I’ve discovered. (Warlock casting is less so.)

      I’ve got nearly all my addons off at this point, and I’m on the big computer, so I don’t really have a good basis for comparison anymore. WoW looks awesome when you throw enough hardware at it. (I was awed when I first booted it on my server.)

  7. Great post, but I’d like to point something out (not necessarily major): That $1k purchase for something that might last 36 months it isn’t an extra $25-$55 dollars per month, it’s $1k-$2k now, and you pray to god it doesn’t break before you can afford a new one.

    Personally I replace parts as they break so some parts are newer than others. I finally replaced a 3 year old Power Supply unit, but it set me back like $150. That’s not $4 a month for the next 3 years, that’s $150 I needed now and now I just hope nothing else breaks before I can afford an upgrade.

    See the difference?

    Also, I don’t think Blizzard can always avoid requirement increases. If it means losing 0.1% of players to make the experience better for the rest, sometimes its worth it. Oftentimes these changes are to make use of new technology which does things better, so some people will see performance boosts, others performance losses.

    • In accounting terms, the monthly cost is an easier way to look at the purchase. The $1-2k payout is a cash flow problem (and a very viable one, don’t get me wrong!), but I personally find the amortized viewpoint more useful for figuring total cost of ownership for a subscription game. Like, if WoW is the only reason you upgrade your machine, then you look at the cost of supporting it versus the cost of continuing with existing hardware. This would include the repair costs and replacement part costs you mentioned.

      I just replaced the power cord on my MacBook, for instance – that was a $60 investment to keep the machine viable. So that cost would get amortized over the life of the part, which might be another 2-3 years of coding, web browsing, and social media. It doesn’t count things like photo management, video processing, and other stuff which got moved to the big machine. So it’s $60 cash outlay now for $1.67/month value over the next three years.

      Just different ways of looking at money!

  8. I’ve worked in the software and IT fields for 16 years, and this is the first I’ve heard of Scheme.

    Boy, way to make a guy feel old…..

    Gimme my FORTRAN and get-offa-my-lawn!!

    • Hope you aren’t using this new-fangled Fortran 77 – However, makes me feel better knowing there’s others of similar vintage playing WoW

      • My spouse uses an undocumented subset of Fortran-77. You have no idea how much cursing goes on when a linux distro screws up their GCC compiler in my house.

    • Scheme is the follower of LISP and gets taught in universities a lot. I’ve been in IT for almost 20 years now and haven’t had to use it once.

      • Dejara Thoris

        Several GNU apps use Guile, a scheme variant, as a scripting language. If you’ve ever used the GIMP, you’ve used a Scheme based system.

  9. Arethir

    I just saw an article about the heat problem on macbook for wow 5.0.4, maybe that could help you 🙂