[Bloggy Xmas] [Gaming Communities] But above all, be kind!

bloggyxmas

Thanks to Syl at MMOGypsy for organising a BloggyChristmas Advent calendar and sequence of blogs.

So we’re all going to be talking about community! Like a lot of other people (10 million to be precise) I’ve been hip deep in the new WoW expansion for the last month or so.

What about them Fury changes, eh? Smile OK, on to community … one thing I have noticed is that the start of a  new expansion is a very exciting time for the community. There’s a ton of new content, probably classes and specs have been tweaked and need to be relearning, old friends may have returned and players often use it as an opportunity to switch guilds also.

So there’s a lot of change and a lot of fun …  and a lot of anxiety too, mostly to do with the rest of the community. “Will I be good enough to make my raid team?” “Will people kick me out of instances because I can’t learn the fights fast enough?” “Will I be able to beat the proving grounds so I can do heroics?” “Oh noes, is my spec awful this expansion?? Which alt should I quickly level?”

Yeah? Any of that sound familiar. We’ve all been there. We’re all learning and that can be stressful.

What’s more, right at the beginning of the expansion is where it’s very easy to shake people’s confidence, especially when the community is hostile to people learning the encounters and gearing up. One bad instance run and it’s easy to think ‘maybe this is too hard for me’. Struggle with solo quests and it’s easy to think ‘they’re trying to tell me I’m not good enough’. Right now is when we need to help each other the most, so that we have other people to play with.

Kindness Helps

So this morning I wanted to give a few examples of where I have seen players helping each other out, and helping each other learn the new expansion together.

 

PUG 1: So we were in Everbloom Normal with a bunch of undergeared noobs, including me obviously. We somehow got to the last boss and wiped. We stopped to read up the fight, shared what we had read, and wiped again. The tank said cheerfully ‘That was better than the last time’ (which was true). We came back in and wiped again. After the fourth wipe, we got him. Every try was better than the last, everyone was trying to figure out what they had to do, no one rage quit.

That’s how you learn instances together.

 

Helping with quests: I have seen this mostly in guild but I’m assuming there will be some kind sorts in just about every guild doing this. As part of the legendary ring quest you have to run some named instances, including heroics. Some of our guys have struggled with Proving Grounds (I’ll write about that on another day, but it isn’t well balanced, so we absolutely have guildies who can rock heroics but not queue for PUGs in them) so need guild groups for those heroics. We have a regular stream of volunteers to help with this – it is in the best interests of the raid team anyway to have people geared but also I think there’s some sympathy for the stress and anxiety of having to ask for help.

 

PUG 2: I was in a heroic instance where one of the dps was putting out fairly poor damage, but doing all the execution stuff for the boss fights correctly. We got to the last boss and one person in the group was suggesting kicking him/her for the damage. The rest of the group pointed out that we hadn’t wiped and were doing just fine and that s/he was still gearing up and we were happy with it. The person who suggested the kick said “Ok then” and we finished the instance. (The kindness btw is the other people in the group sticking up for the guy.)

 

They are small things, but they make the game a better, friendlier place. And right now, with all the stresses in the world and all the stresses in the game, it matters.

Feel free to share any examples of kindnesses you have seen shown to others (or yourself) or have shown yourself! It can’t all be about whining that other people in a PUG aren’t yet raid geared and know the tactics perfectly, after all.

[WoW] Farewell to Pandaria

A few of my favourite screenshots from this expansion. There are a couple from Kun-Lai Summit at the top, as it is my favourite zone in Pandaria. (I’m easy about the lack of flying in WoD but it does mean it will be harder to get these panoramic screenies there.)

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Home on the range.

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Bouncing around as a saurok was one of the more fun things we got to do.

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Remember the giant snails of doom?

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And this is a shot from the dark portal JUST before the prepatch expansion came in and changed everything for WoD. Nice shots of some cloud serpents there which were and are stunning mounts. Onwards and upwards!

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New expansions, MMOs as life simulations, and why only idiots whine about “welfare epics”

Aladdin

A whole new world …

So a new WoW expansion is now just around the corner which means that players are getting ready to take their characters into what is effectively a new game world. People are returning to the game, deciding which alts to play first, and (if they are keen) thinking hard about what preparation they could do now to give themselves and their characters a bit of an edge.

And of course, mentally preparing to replace hard won epics from the current expansion with blue and green quest gear. This is a time for getting some closure from current content and preparing to move on. Bloggers will be writing about their favourite zones and stories from the current expansion, people will be chasing those last few achievements while they are still just about current, doing the farewell tours, getting ready to leave. This time next month, no one will care about your Pandarian epics (tbh they probably already stopped caring).  Expansions are (gaming) life’s way of telling you not to take things too seriously.

I’ll probably put up a few posts remembering some of my favourite parts of Pandaria also before WoD is released.

MMOs as a simulation of life

OnlyAModel

MMOs are a simplistic simulation of life. Your character enters the world as a callow untried youth with nothing to them except their name and the clothes on their back. As you play the game you collect gear, gold, levels, pets and mounts (I guess these are the in game equivalent of family Smile ), friends/ contacts, maybe a guild and a social circle, reputation, achievements, knowledge, whatever passes for in-game wisdom – you become wealthy and save the world (possibly multiple times) and NPCs know your name. And it doesn’t really end other than when you get bored and leave, but if it did there would probably be some kind of state funeral and loving heirs waiting to take over your mantle and light a candle in your name every year.

Like I say, very basic simulation of a certain type of life narrative. Rags to Riches. The immigrant story.

I think people can get fooled by this into some odd political ideas if they are silly enough to try to apply MMO rules to actual life, where it isn’t quite that easy to start from nothing and end up as the coolest, richest character on the planet. But it’s nice to be able to forget all the horrible disparities of RL and just play in a world where everyone pretty much starts from a clean slate.

Anyhow, this leads to two ways of looking at a new expansion:

  1. Asylum model. You have to leave your home and go to a new place. It’s a new beginning with new opportunities. But ultimately you had no choice about whether to go. And you have to start from nothing.
  2. Emigration model. For whatever reason, your character looks to new horizons and going into a new expansion is like emigrating to a new country. You can’t take a lot of your existing knowledge and gear with you but you can plan to transfer whatever you are able.

A new player would pretty much have to start from option 1, unless they have friends in the game who are going to help them out. Existing players have a choice, and the way they make that choice will be largely about their own priorities and how they prefer to play.

I quite enjoy the sense of starting from scratch. You feel that you are making a lot of progress quite fast. It is exciting. It focuses you on making the most you can of the new experience. Others prefer to put a lot of work into achieving as many advantages as they can. Some would even argue that if it is possible to minmax some advantages, that is clearly the optimal way to play.

But what IS clear is that the vast majority of the effort keen players have poured into playing the current expansion will not affect their experience in the next one. It won’t matter how many times you wiped to **evil boss of choice – Elegon in our case I think** because all you will be able to take with you are the memories of the good times and the friends you shared them with. Players will simply have to live with that. It isn’t the traditional/ original MMO way (which would have been just adding more content all round but letting the players’ game history continue to have more impact), but HAS become the MMO way since level-advancing expansions were first invented.

This is because it allows new players to catch up a bit, and also offers a good entry point for returning players. They do expansions like this because it works and is profitable.

Lets talk about the ‘welfare epic’ whiners

If  you have every complained about ‘welfare epics’ in WoW you are an idiot. And you have been duped into equating poor people with gamers whose playing style you don’t like, and with dev companies whose strategies to make the game fun for different parts of the playerbase you don’t like either. Right wing political slogans simply have no place in describing MMO setups and I suspect the people who fall into those linguistic traps have no idea what they are talking about; it’s a trap laid by the MMOs being an incredibly simplistic life simulation, as I said above.

The original phrase was coined by a Blizzard Dev (who should have been disciplined for insulting large numbers of the player base, incidentally) and was about the way points were given out in PvP battlegrounds which meant you could get points by basically doing nothing. This was fairly dumb but had nothing to do with welfare – anyone who thinks that you get handed nice stuff via actual welfare for doing nothing simply does not know what they are talking about. (You get shit stuff and it comes with massive stress and being forced to let the system know far too much about your personal life. I’ve lived on benefits when I was a kid and I’m grateful that the govt paid for us to have a roof over my head and clothes on my back, but not needing benefits is better.) The people who deliberately exploited this were both stupid and lazy, but mostly they were exploiters and Blizzard  has to take the blame for leaving that loophole open. It is always surprising, in both RL and in game, how much more effort people will put into trying to exploit the system than just playing it regularly when the rewards are not that dissimilar either way.

(I always thought the welfare metaphor was an odd one incidentally — it would have been just as easy to refer to ‘spoiled children loot’ or ‘trust fund baby loot’ for a metaphor for people getting stuff they don’t deserve. But no, right wingers are obsessed to a bonkers level with whether ‘welfare recipients’ are deserving or not.)

It also should be obvious to everyone by this point that the way Blizzard run the game is via a succession of major and minor expansions. The minor expansion we tend to call major patches and there will be 3-4 of them within every major expansion. With every minor expansion, the game needs to make it possible for new or lagging players to catch up to the new content, hence the iLvL of drops/ quests from the new content will be edging higher.

  • So if you think the optimal way to play the game is to get the maximum loot for the minimum effort, the most sensible thing to do is collect your gear when it’s easiest (ie. slightly out of date but still useful), and play through the raids once or twice on LFG just so you can see them.
  • If you think the optimal way to play the game is to get every advantage available and see all the content while it is cutting edge, then be prepared to put a lot more work in AND to see your advantage become eroded with every expansion (both major and minor); it’s a never ending treadmill but “Fame costs and here’s where you start paying”.

(NB. If you don’t really care about the optimal way of playing the game then you will probably never feel stressed about any of this. Go and have fun Smile )

The aggro I think comes from the latter group who have a nagging worry that maybe, just maybe, all that work they are putting into the game has become somewhat devalued. WELCOME TO THE NEW REALITY GUYS! The only reason to put that much effort in is because you enjoy and prefer that style of gameplay. It is cool being part of a cutting edge guild, feeling that you have completely mastered your game of choice. Own your choice and enjoy it.

But don’t fucking complain about welfare epics, you idiots. It just shows that you don’t know anything about either welfare or epics.If it’s that important to you that your hard work feels rewarded, then you would be happier with a different game. Or in other words, in real life one’s hard work is not usually rewarded or even recognised, maybe this just means the life simulation is simply getting more realistic.

[Dragon Age] Getting ready for DAI: Dragon Age Keep

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*sniff* Alas poor dwarf commoner heroine, I may have temporarily forgotten you but it all comes back to me now!

Any Dragon Age fans out there? Course there are! Dragon Age Inquisition is going to be taking up a lot of my time come this November –  like many others I will find my gaming time massively torn between DAI and the warcraft expansion. Bioware have thoughtfully released little cameos of the new companions so like any right minded person I have already been thinking which of them I plan to romance. #ridetheironbull But that’s for another blog post.  Suffice it to say I can’t really imagine even having this discussion about another game line or developer. Also if the ‘pinkification’ of games means more cool romances I’m all for it.

Dragon Age: The story so far

Dragon Age Keep is now in open beta. This is an official website where players can look through the stories of the last two Dragon Age games (Origins, and Dragon Age 2) and either upload records of the choices that they made in their own favourite game or tweak the main choices to get the background that they want for DAI. I can only assume this means that many of these choices will impact on conversations or interactions in the new game.

One of the things they have done that I really love is that after uploading the options taken in your game/s, which it does fairly smoothly, the Keep gives a brief animated run through of the story so far. There is a narration. You are also offered  the ability to change some of the key choices as they come up. I’ve shown this in the image at the top of the post. It’s really rather great.

Later on, you get the chance to edit the whole ‘tapestry’ by being able to dip into specific parts of the game and editing what you would like to have happened. Hey, it beats having to run through the Deep Roads again.

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Alas poor Anders. Gone but not forgotten. No wait, apparently I didn’t actually kill him! I may be the only one Winking smileDoes that mean he might make a cameo? Will Ser Pounce-a-Lot be with him? Roll on the 18th.

[MMOs] Your learning needs are not my problem

Stubborn has a great post up on the Epic Slant blog where he applies some of his teaching theories about collaboration to game design. You should read it, but I’m just riffing off the basic idea. He talks about how you design a collaborative task to give everyone in the group opportunities to learn.

I was intrigued because I feel increasingly that random group content in MMOs is an anti-learning environment. If people zone in with someone who is learning the fight, they’re likely to be disappointed because it will take longer. They don’t want to take ‘the hit’ of being part of someone else’s learning experience. It’s not surprising, if group content is designed to encourage group learning (I don’t actually think MMO devs have educators on board, sadly, because that would be awesome but let’s pretend) then the whole point is that the group learns together.

Even a lot of learning players would rather be boosted and not have to bother learning the fight than be thrown in with a group of similarly experienced players and all learn it together. That isn’t a function of noobiness, a lot of experienced players would do the same thing – just they’d probably actually bother to learn the fight at some point. Although possibly not to the same holistic level – if you learn a fight in a group where everyone else already performs their role well then you will only really learn your own role. You won’t learn how the fight fully works.

People are lazy. Only raid leaders are really motivated to fully understand fights. A lot of players are happy to just be told what to do. None of this is surprising. I also think it is most fun to learn a fight in a group of similarly skilled players who are also friends who are learning together; it’s harder than ever to get this type of group together except at the beginning of new content. Because people will head into LFR to learn what they can.

Your learning will slow us down

The other week we raided again with an old guildie who has just rejoined after spending the expansion in more hardcore raids. He’s a great guy, good player, geared to the gills, knows the fights backwards, and it was lovely having him back in raid chat. We got to one of the boss fights (Blackfuse) where some of the DPS have a slightly different role – he said he was happy to try it but it would be his first time as his old raid hadn’t let him do it before so he wasn’t really sure how it worked.

This gives an indication of how specialised and risk averse some raid groups can be. If you didn’t happen to be That Guy who took on that role when the raid first learned a fight, they will be reluctant to give you a chance to learn unless they have no choice because learning takes time and that would set them back. So do you make the whole raid wipe a couple of times while new guy learns the positioning or tell him to go practice in LFR/ go back to his usual role so you can make more progress?

Has learning got more scary in MMOs?

So what I am wondering is whether it has gotten scarier to learn new roles or fights. PUGs don’t care if it was the first time you saw the raid, they’ll have to judge you on what they see. Progression raids worship progression and will be frustrated if you take too long to learn.

I guess with a new WoW expansion coming up, we can say it’s easier to get into learning mode at the beginning of a new content patch when everyone (briefly) is learning together. And the goal isn’t just to learn, it’s to learn as quickly as you can do you don’t get booted from your raid later. That adds a certain extra stress that I suspect good educators would have tried to avoid. I wouldn’t be surprised if more and more people just avoid group content – it only takes one really stressful experience to kill someone’s confidence.

And I wonder if the genre (such as it is) would be more long lived if more design effort was put into making the learning experience less stressy.

[WoW] Proving Grounds–preparing players for group content?

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The Proving Grounds are a one-person instance in WoW where you can practice tanking, healing, or dps roles with and against mobs that are a bit more interactive than training dummies. There are some NPCs that will help you, and the various mobs have different abilities and/or need to be attached from different directions.

So far, so good, it’s a neat concept. I have friends and guildies who love the Proving Ground mini game; it has harder and harder modes and you can keep going until you get to Infinite Mode which means carry on until you are bored or wipe. The idea also is that it is a good way to practice the roles before trying group content. So in the next expansion, you will have to complete the Proving Ground for your role at Silver level (Bronze is the easiest, Silver next step up) before you will be able to queue for heroic instances.

If there is an issue with the Proving Grounds though, it is this. Bronze level is easy and still does the job of making you use different tactics for different mobs. The more difficult tiers I find tuned harder (or at least different) than what you generally will be asked to do do in instances; harder in the sense of no one to help, and hard timers (i.e. count down in the corner).  So Silver Mode in WoD could actually be harder in some senses than the content it will be used to gate, and still not guarantee that people who pass it will be useful in heroic groups.

Also when the game does this in single player mode, it penalises some classes/ specs more than others because the encounters are tuned by role, not by class or spec. For example, if I’m doing a tanking Proving Ground on my warrior, my dps will be less than that of the other tanks because of class choice. It doesn’t make it impossible (they do tune it reasonably from that point of view), but it will be harder for me to make the timers, even if my tanking is otherwise flawless.

It’s not necessarily bad for the players if the gatekeeping requires a higher skill level than the instances. It implies at least that the people you will be queuing with will be good enough to manage the heroic. But if the gatekeeping keeps out too many people who would have been fine in the groups but are no longer allowed to queue then a) people will leave the game and b) queue length will increase. It’s a fine line. My confidence in my WoW skills is very low at the moment, so I’m assuming I probably won’t be able to do it. Still, there’s always pet battles.

 

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The thing that annoys me most about Proving Grounds is that in the tanking one, you get an NPC healer who also nukes mobs. You have to tab around to find out which one they are nuking so that you can make sure to hold aggro on it. In a just universe, you’d be able to mark the mobs so that you can control which order the healer kills them in – IMO that would be a far more useful thing to learn before queuing for instances than whether or not you can kill illusionary mobs in under 10s.

It does make me wonder about how else you could train players to be more skilled and confident in group roles.

[Wildstar] Game difficulty, player confidence.

“… each struggling MMO is struggling in its own way.”

– Tolstoy (sort of)

I have read a few blog posts this week about Wildstar, and the inevitable subscription drop-off and server merge. I’d be hard pressed at this point to name a recent subscription MMO that hadn’t experienced a drop-off after the first couple of months. Players have wondered whether the game’s difficulty compared with other similar MMOs may be part of the explanation for why the new MMO on the block has failed to break the 3-monther pattern.

I played the game in Beta and wasn’t hooked, but at the same time, when so many other MMOs have trodden the same path it’s hard to pick out anything exceptional about this one. Except that the magical lightning-in-a-bottle MMO factor that will get a game to go viral and grow the playerbase rather than shrinking doesn’t seem to be there. It isn’t doom for Wildstar though – other games such as SWTOR and Final Fantasy 14 have recovered from the slump and stabilised the playerbase at a lower level. At this point no MMO is going to go viral unless its new and different, or appeals to a wildly different audience from the usual crowd. WoW did it. Minecraft did it. Lots of other games were decently successful but without setting the world alight, and that’s fine.

At the same time, if their target core audience was hardcore raiders, that was only ever going to be a small proportion of the player base. And it was always likely that unless those people were very burned out with WoW, they’d be tempted back for the next expansion. It’s certainly possible to raid hardcore in two different games at the same time, but not when one of them has a new expansion out.

I did like Keen’s analysis of ‘the quit wall’ in games. “People reach the wall and they quit.”  It could be a frustrating grind, or a really hard solo quest, or dungeon that it is impossible to find a group for – whatever it is, it becomes so frustrating that players no longer enjoy the game because they cannot see a path to the next goal that looks achievable.

I think of difficulty as being in two types:

  1. Something you could do with time and effort and/or help from other players, but it might take more time and effort (and motivation) than you want to spend.
  2. Something you just can’t do, and you aren’t confident that time and effort would change that.

When you describe it in these terms, 1) sounds like a rational choice. If it takes me 2 hours to run a dungeon and I’d need to run it 20 times to get the tokens that I need, I could rationally step back and think “Whoa, 40 hours for one doodad that will probably be obsolete in the next patch. No thanks.” Sometimes the sheer sticker shock when you realise how much hassle will be involved is enough to put people off even trying.  2) is a judgement call – how long do you try an event/ grind/ etc. before you decide that it isn’t possible?

So our judging difficulty is all about confidence. How good am I at succeeding in difficult things? (Women, incidentally, tend to underestimate this, men are more likely to overestimate – they call this ‘the confidence gap’). If people are already stressed out by other aspects of the game (eg. being yelled at for being a newbie in instances) then they are already likely to be feeling less confident.

So if you put a difficulty wall in a game, the least confident people are most likely to leave first. If your game attracts a crowd who are bullying and elitist, more of the other players will lose confidence and leave. It may be because they are bad players who couldn’t keep up. Or it may be because they lost the will to try or felt they would not be able to learn quickly enough. In either case, the player base reduces.

But still, admitting to yourself that a game is too difficult feels like failure for a gamer. It’s hard to do and even harder to discuss – I think every time I have written a blog post about where I thought part of a game was overtuned, I’ve been challenged on that by people who felt quite strongly about wanting their games to stay difficult.

So this is a tough topic. But does anyone want to share a time when difficulty made them decide to drop a game and how that felt? I never did complete the solo part of the legendary WoW quest this expansion – it was too hard for me and my shadow priest, and I don’t play MMOs because I want to do hard solo content (I’d get Dark Souls if I wanted that). And though I will play the game again, I will always now feel that the designers are telling me it’s too hard for me, and I’m probably not going to raid other than very casually. Because I got the message.