Thursday, January 31, 2008

Let loose the mods of WAR

In a recent Warhammer Online dev chat it was confirmed that "The UI will be totally customizable in terms of appearance and utility. For folks who understand what it means: It’s all Lua-based, so experienced modders will be right at home in WAR." Or to be even clearer: the WAR UI will be as easy to modify as that of WoW. Hmmmmm. Is that good news or bad news?

Nobody remembers it any more, but World of Warcraft shipped with a pretty bad UI. For example there was only one hotkey bar, and no way to add more of them. So some of the first UI mods added more hotkey bars, everybody used those mods, and Blizzard adapted the idea and patched additional hotkey bars into the standard UI. There are actually quite a lot of features of the WoW UI that started their life as player-made UI mods, until they were so popular that Blizzard adopted them. It is classic "Web 2.0" of user-created content, and World of Warcraft is a better game because of it.

There are quite a number of mods that make the game a lot easier for their users. Most raiding guilds require players to use a set of specific mods, like CTRaidAssist, Decursive, and some threat meter. I also use mods like FishingBuddy, which makes fishing a lot easier, Gatherer, which makes herbalism and mining easier, Recount, a damage meter helping me to optimize my dps, and Auctioneer, which helps me make money on the AH. Many of these mods are quite complicated, Auctioneer for example can search through all of the listed goods in the AH and propose underpriced ones for you to buy or bid on. Decursive and FishingBuddy reduce a series of several mouse clicks to a single click or double-click.

When exactly does the use of such addons cross the line to where it becomes cheating? I'm not talking about the legalistic view of "if Blizzard doesn't ban it, it's not cheating". I'm talking about the point where one player wins over another player because he uses an addon the other player didn't install. To give just one example, the effectiveness of a Warlock with his damage over time curses is much diminished if the enemy team is using Decursive. In PvE few people might mind if somebody else advances faster due to the use of addons. But in a PvP-based game like WAR one side having an advantage over the other due to the use of addons is more problematic. Yes, in principle everyone could download them and even the score. But if the UI isn't provided by the game itself, and you are forced to keep up to date with various addons from various mod sites, there are always some players losing out in that particular arms race.

And of course mods can influence the balance between classes in PvP. If a dev decides how powerful to make a damage over time ability, does he consider the use of addons to dispel them faster or does he balance their power with only the regular removal speed in mind? PvE balance is also affected; how far would all the WoW raiders be now if they didn't have raid healing or boss ability warning addons?

Mods create an additional layer of haves and have-nots. Game companies need to be very careful what exactly they allow addons to do, because otherwise the negative effect of being able to "cheat" outweigh the positive effects of improving the UI slowly for everybody.

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