Recognizing complexity

We are getting lots of snow here today in the “sunny South”, so I took a couple hours to catch up on my WoW blog reading. One in particular started me thinking about Blizz’s decisions and actions ever since the announcement of Warlords of Draenor, how they seem perplexing for such a large and successful company. Then it dawned on me:

They are in over their heads and are floundering just to keep afloat. 

I don’t mean financially, I mean technically, at the meta system management level.

*Courtesy xkcd

*Courtesy xkcd

(By the way, the blog that got me into this train of thought was over at ALT:ernative Chat, an interesting piece that theorizes Blizz is becoming more and more consumed with just fixing bugs, at the expense of developing new content.  It’s short, so take a couple minutes and check it out.)

If you take even a few seconds to think about WoW and all the pieces that make it what it is — an incredible gaming experience even with all its flaws — you’ll realize that “incredibly complex” is an extreme understatement. I would argue, in fact, that it qualifies as a Complex Adaptive System, governed by complexity theory.

Apologies for citing Wikipedia, I know it is not a scholarly source, but trust me you do not want to read the actual scholarly sources on this subject, it is not for the mathematically challenged. Here is a list of the characteristics of Complex Adaptive Systems (from the same Wikipedia article, which has citations you can look up if you want to):

Some of the most important characteristics of complex systems are:

The number of elements is sufficiently large that conventional descriptions (e.g. a system of differential equations) are not only impractical, but cease to assist in understanding the system. Moreover, the elements interact dynamically, and the interactions can be physical or involve the exchange of information.

Such interactions are rich, i.e. any element or sub-system in the system is affected by and affects several other elements or sub-systems.

The interactions are non-linear: small changes in inputs, physical interactions or stimuli can cause large effects or very significant changes in outputs.

Interactions are primarily but not exclusively with immediate neighbours and the nature of the influence is modulated.

Any interaction can feed back onto itself directly or after a number of intervening stages. Such feedback can vary in quality. This is known as recurrency.

Such systems may be open and it may be difficult or impossible to define system boundaries.

Complex systems operate under far from equilibrium conditions. There has to be a constant flow of energy to maintain the organization of the system.

Complex systems have a history. They evolve and their past is co-responsible for their present behaviour.

Elements in the system may be ignorant of the behaviour of the system as a whole, responding only to the information or physical stimuli available to them locally.

Sound familiar? Some of the major implications of these system characteristics are:

  • Such systems cannot be modeled with any degree of certainty. (Maybe beta and PTR tests become less and less valuable, because they are just models of the final system?)
  • The possibilities for breaking something while fixing something else grow ever larger. And the fixed and broken things are not necessarily directly connected to each other, making them ever more difficult to predict and even track down. Introducing new elements only increases the number of problems, usually unpredictably.
  • Since the system rarely operates in equilibrium, just maintaining the system organization consumes ever-increasing resources. Pendulum swings are common.

So here’s the point (yeah, I know, you were hoping I would get to it sooner or later): Blizzard has failed to recognize the kind of system their game has become, and they are still trying to manage it as they did back before it morphed.

As I have said before, Blizz management operates like a couple of guys in a garage. Yes, it’s now lots more than “a couple”, and the “garage” is huge and fancy, but the philosophy is still the same. And now that perceptual mistake has caught up with them. They are running faster and faster but still falling behind, and every new game structure they introduce causes an explosion of system bugs.

They simply do not grasp the fact that their structure must change. In the past, when they had bugs, the solution was to list them and fix them. But now fixing them inevitably creates more bugs because of the system complexity, and making bigger lists and hiring more fixers is not a solution. In the past, a few smart devs could manage the direction of the game and had a good grasp of how Change X would affect various facets. But now such management requires experts in complex systems — who probably are not experts in the game itself — who know how to organize meta systems by coordinating the efforts of subject matter experts. They need experts in complex subsystems, such as actual economists to manage the game economy, professional pollsters to truly determine what their customers want, social media experts for things like Twitter integration and managing chat subsystems.

But I see no indication that Blizz recognizes any of this, much less that they are adapting to the new reality.  Unless they do something drastically different, any new content they introduce is doomed to failure, and the current content will continue to deteriorate.



About Fiannor
I have a day job but escape by playing WoW. I love playing a hunter, and my Lake Wobegonian goal is to become "above average" at it.

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