Rewarding the Character vs Rewarding the Player

It’s hardly possible to move these days in an MMO without tripping over a slew of new rewards. Emblems, xp, gear, badges, pets, titles, gold, cosmetic clothes, house decorations, mounts, achievements, quest unlocks, and so on – and with every patch, the list gets longer.

And yet, not all rewards are equal. There’s been a slow and ongoing trend in MMOs to reward the player rather than the character. I’ll give some examples of what I mean by this.

Rewarding the character means that you get something that will help with character progression. When you are levelling, almost all the rewards you get in game are to do with character progression. The xp, the new gear, new abilities, talent points to spend, being high enough level to travel to more interesting places and unlock new quests, for example. All of these things are about character progression and your character’s story.

Rewarding the player is a different kettle of fish. Rewards may add extra gameplay options, or more ways to interact with other players. They might simply be avenues through which players can compare achievements or satisfy those collection itches. So achievements, cosmetic pets and clothing, fluff, fun, and anything that doesn’t really operate in the same sphere as character progression falls in here.

So far, so good. Older games also included many of these player rewards, but they tried harder to tie everything to character progression also. So for example, in City of Heroes, if you get the right set of titles, your character gets some stat bonuses. Moving away from that era is a very distinctive and definite shift in approach. And it solves a lot of problems. Because if players could be gotten to concentrate more on player rewards than character rewards, then character progression could slow right down.

The problem of character progression

Character progression has been an albatross around the neck of MMO devs back since the MUD days. It’s not an issue with single player games, but there are specific problems with multi-player games. For example:

  • How do you pace progression so that the hardcore and casual players can all be satisfied?
  • How can players interact with each other when they are at different levels of progression?
  • How can a new player cope if they come into the game a couple of years after the start? Will they be too far behind to catch up?

Interestingly, we didn’t have this problem to quite such an extent in MUSHes. But that was because they were such social games, and your character’s power level wasn’t as important as who your friends and contacts were. And that’s worth remembering, because it is one solution to progression that hasn’t really been explored.

The other problem with character progression is that players adore it.

Many many games, not just RPGs or MMOs, are based on the idea that a character starts off weak and defenceless and gradually gains more power, knowledge, and tools over time until they can defeat some kind of final challenge. Character progression is a powerful story tool, and it’s also the most basic, the most primal story in the world. It is the story of life. We are born weak, we grow up, we gain knowledge and power, we make friends and relationships. (And then grow old and die but games don’t explore that side of the story very deeply, which is a shame.)

Character progression in MMOs is painfully basic. The story is mostly killing monsters, getting loot, selling said loot on the auction house, maybe learning a tradeskill, and interacting lightly with the same quests as everyone else. And once you have finished levelling, the progression has nowhere much to go. It’s because our character’s stories are so weak that we treat the rewards as so much candy. Another day, another piece of gear. Ho hum.

So at endgame, it isn’t surprising if devs want to shift to player based rewards. Creating more character progression is hard, and although tentative steps have been made towards player driven character progression in games like EVE (I’m thinking of proper virtual politics and the player council) , that’s not really how game developers have been thinking.

The great advantage of player rewards is that they don’t affect game balance or do anything mechanically to put up extra barriers to prevent character interaction. They also foster a different type of social dynamic, and one that is potentially less character based.  And yet … yet those pesky players adore their characters and their character progression. They want to tell more stories about those characters, not just the endless ‘I did instance X 13 times last week’ or ‘I ground out Y points in battleground Z’.

So it makes perfect sense for devs to try to move away from character progression. The problem of endgame might not exist if the rest of the game wasn’t all about levelling and progression. The question is, will better designed player rewards help to dissociate players from their characters?

And next year Bioware will debut Star Wars: The Old Republic, with their emphasis on story as the fourth pillar of gameplay. Will they be able to find a way to keep telling stories after the levelling period is over? Or will their game also dissolve into a mass of achievements, cosmetic pets, and random fluff?

Gearscore, and why we need to evaluate other players

The rot set in as soon as Blizzard allowed players to check each others gear. Adding achievements to the game and then conveniently storing everyone’s statistics on the Armoury were just the icing on the cake. It was only  a matter of time before addon writers figured out ways to automate these gear checks to make it easier and simpler to give another player the thumbs up or thumbs down for whatever group content you were planning to do.

Enter Gearscore, an addon which neatly totals some arbitrary ratings for each piece of gear (probably based on item level, which is fair game since Blizzard use it too) and sums it all up into a single gear score. If you have this addon installed, all you have to do is mouse over another player or their name in a group or raid and you’ll get the gearscore number. The latest version of Gearscore also hooks into one of the popular damage meters (recount) so presumably it is also going to try to gauge dps … or something like that.

There’s nothing controversial in making up arbitrary numbers to prove how badass you are or aren’t, but naturally players are now using the gearscore as a gating mechanism for PUG invites. I haven’t seen this so much on my server but it’s right up there with ‘show your achievement’ on others. Of course the number doesn’t adequately represent a player’s skill. Of course it can be arbitrary. Of course there can be some items which work better for a spec/class than the higher gearscore ones. So the harder nosed players criticise the use of the gear score, it doesn’t tell the whole truth.

Yes, it’s unfriendly to new players who are just going to the right places to gear up. Although it’s hard to really argue this point with the influx of badges from the dungeon finder these days (pro tip: run Oculus :) ).

But there is another side to this. WoW, and MMORPGs like it, are gear based games. Part of your skill as a player is knowing what the best gear is for your class/spec and knowing how to acquire it. And sometimes, gear really is a gating factor. Given two players of similar skill, the one with the better gear will perform better; that’s hard coded into the game.

Of course looking at a single number is no substitute for checking over someone’s gear in person, if you really want to be sure that they understand their class (note: you will also need to understand their class if you hope to make any sense out of this.) And of course a poor player with badly chosen gear could still have a good gear score.

Gear Score isn’t a guaranteed way to show whether someone is a good player or not. It can be gamed in a lot of ways, and it will also miss a LOT of great players whose gear choices just aren’t recognised properly by the addon. A lot of players dislike it for that reason – Aislinana at Empowered Fire writes a spirited and well argued dismissal of the addon.

But the reason the addon has taken off is because it helps automate a task that PUG raid leaders need to do. They need to evaluate possible members before they invite them, so that they can try to put together a successful raid.Gear is a part of that, experience is a part of that (hence why people ask to see achievements), and when dealing with strangers, that’s pretty much all you have to go on. This is why in a lot of PUGs, the leader will ask existing members to ask around their guild for possible interest before they dive back into one of the world channels to look for random players.

It does feel unfair if you know perfectly well that you could perform well in that raid or group, and are being rejected because of some addon or lack of achievement. But put yourself in that raid leader’s place. Maybe you don’t want to have to explain the encounter to people who haven’t seen it before, maybe you just want a quick smooth run. The easiest way to ensure that is to take well geared people who have seen the raid before. Or poke your social network and trust your friends to recommend other people who will also perform well. The addons take the place of personal recommendations. And just as one of your friends can recommend a partner who actually turns out to be a rubbish healer (for example), the addons can make mistakes too.

One thing is for sure though, this need to evaluate random players isn’t going to go away. Raid leaders need to do this. Even the nicest players in the world can’t carry someone through a difficult raid, whether they want to or not. And if addons can make this job less onerous then people will use them even if the addon is programmed to be cautious and reject players who would be perfectly fine in the raid.

We could ask why people are so risk averse in MMOs. The answer might simply be … because they can. The great success of the random dungeon finder is simply that it is now easier to get a group and run an instance than to painstakingly evaluate four other people. ie. even if someone in the group is undergeared or underskilled, it’s quicker and easier for the others to just take them along than to be picky about looking for replacemnet.s

The only real question is what arbitrary way to evaluate their fellow players will people think of next? Nibuca writes at Mystic Chicanery about an alternative evaluation addon that she’s tried called Elitist Group (this one lets you save notes about different players after having grouped with them.)

So what can you do if you are hitting the gear score ceiling?

Firstly, don’t stress over being turned down for groups. Shrug and move on. Wish them luck if you are feeling polite. Particularly don’t stress out if their requirements were stupidly high, it’s their raid and their loss.

Secondly, work on your gear. Even if you know it isn’t necessary, you might as well collect more emblems and see if there are any easily available upgrades you might want. Don’t fool yourself that you’re such a great player that gear doesn’t matter – in a gear based game, all you are doing is making things harder for yourself.

Third, try to make some friends on your server. Maybe join a guild that does occasional raids for newer player or alts. Offer to help PUG raids that are less geared than you are.

Fourth, keep an eye open for people looking to fill PUG raids. Particularly the weekly raid quests, which are often to easier instances. When a raid is almost full, raid leaders will be more open to relaxing their initial requirements so that they can get things going. But if you do this, try to sound polite and as though you know what you are doing, and take it nicely if you are turned down.

Fifth, consider whether you want to start your own raid. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you know the raid instance, but there’s plenty of information around online if you fancy your chances.

It will work out. It just might not work out immediately.

Best WoW Player in the World redux

I wrote a few months ago about a player on the EU servers who had attained the previously almost unimaginable score of 10000 achievement points in WoW. This week, the story has been all over the WoW blogs about a player on on the Taiwanese servers who has completed every single achievement in the game (bar one holiday achievement that was added recently for the Xmas holiday event).

For those keeping score, the Taiwanese guy whose name I can’t transliterate due to my sad lack of knowledge of Chinese currently has 10850 achievement points. But Zoltan is still very much in the game with 10790; comparing  armoury pages it looks as though he was less lucky with some of the random holiday items and with the fishing.

(Edited to add: Longasc points out in comments below that Casperle on EU-Azshara has 10830 achievement points. Not sure who is the top US achiever, anyone know? And is it a coincidence that both the Europeans are on German language servers?)

Or in other words, Taiwanese and European achievement collectors are approximately as nuts as each other. But you have to respect that kind of dedication. From a safe distance.

Running with non-optimal groups

It doesn’t typically take very long in a new MMO before theorycrafters start wondering about ‘the perfect group’. That is to say, given group content in game that’s designed for a fixed group size, what’s the optimal combination of classes/ specs/ etc to take? People spend a long time obsessing over exactly how many off-healers might be needed, whether the various buffs interlock in an aesthetically pleasing way, making sure that the hypothetical super-group has a good balance of melee, ranged, single target and AE damage potential, whether the phases of the moon favour fire or frost damage and so on.

Sometimes alternative potential groups are invented based on alternative strategies — you see this more on the PvP side of things, a crowd control group full of casters involves a very different composition from a melee assist train. And in a kind of platonic gladiatorial arena, the competing concepts actually get to duke it out in the field.

But somehow, the most memorable instance and PvP runs I have been in all involved non-optimal groups. There is a special kind of feeling of achievement in knowing that you’ve beaten either the game or other players with the odds stacked against you.

I was thinking this over the weekend when I looked at the 10 man signups and saw 3 warlocks, 2 druids, 2 paladins, 2 shamans, and me (ie. 1 warrior) and realised that I was going to have to turn up as my offspec and let the druids tank because we had so few melee signed (and it just so happened that no one else had a melee offspec, go figure).

We had a great run, knocked out Hodir for the first time, and smooth kills on all the other bosses we attempted — hurrah for warlock powah! The only frustrating part for me as raid leader was having to skip Thorim because of not having any instant-cast healers (the arena is a bitch for healers/ casters because there are slow effects).

But I think it felt even better due to knowing the group balance was so oddball. What do you think? Do you get more of a sense of achievement when you feel as though you’ve gone with a really weird group composition?

2 Funny Things, and 1 Sad One

1. We found out in Noblegarden that the formal clothes are not soulbound so were passing them round. Yesterday morning found Spinks, dressed in a formal shirt and trousers, kissing a male tauren in a pink dress. Fortunately there are no screenshots to celebrate this event because we were both bunnies at the time. Note: The reason is because he was really keen for me to get the achievement and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t really care.

I think with this event, WoW may have crossed some kind of surrealist event horizon.

I actually really like Noblegarden for the simple reason that I can easily avoid it. All you have to do is stay out of the starting areas. I don’t have people whining at me to go farm some dungeon boss. All the rewards are purely cosmetic. And it keeps the achievement junkies out of my hair. WIN!

2. I’ve been playing Age of Conan recently with Arb, Unwize, and some other friends (feel free to link your blogs in comments if I missed one). Aside from competing as to whose character can get the skimpiest outfit (this time the reason there are no screenies is because I haven’t figured out how to do them), it’s pretty obvious that this game was not written with female players in mind.

In one part of the epic questline, you get to talk to a (male) questgiver who needs a vial of blood from a non-virgin so he can get you to swap it with the virgin blood that the evil sorceress is using in her ritual. One of the dialogue options as a female character is, “You could use my blood?” to which he wimps out and answers that you have amnesia so you can’t be sure that you aren’t a virgin. Now, I didn’t fancy him much either but lives are at stake!!! I’ve seen The Wicker Man! I know that being a nubile virgin means that you end up getting horribly sacrificed. But no, I had to go back to town to find a friendly prostitute instead. Who wanted to chat me up, until she realised I was only after her blood.

Maybe my character is a lesbian virgin vampire. That would actually be a lot more interesting than Conan :) (Sorry, I’m just not a fan of the books.)

Sad Things

I’m not big on goodbyes but I’ll miss Out of Mana, good luck with wherever life takes you next, Megan!

The meta-game of MMOs

Given how much extra work and hassle it can be, why DO people bother leading raids or leading guilds in MMOs?

I have been thinking recently about why I’m so drawn to raid leading in games, and in particular to leading casual raids rather than PUGs (although I have done that also).

Being a successful raid or guild leader definitely feels like a much more satisfying achievement to me than being random dps #12 in even the most hardcore guild. Not only that, but raiding itself becomes a more satisfying and immersive experience when you’re the one who is setting the goals for the raids, making the calls about what went wrong, and deciding what strategy to try next.

I also think of building a successful guild or raid as a meta-game that exists inside the MMO framework.  As a challenge, it’s definitely up there with anything the devs are capable of throwing at us, and maybe that’s part of the appeal.

If you can do it, the rewards are great. As well as more control over your gaming (for example, you can make sure raids always happen on days/times that are convenient for you), it’s a relatively high prestige position to hold in game.

If such things matter to you, people do also respect successful guild or raid leaders. It’s for the same reason that my cat loves and respects me – I am the provider of food (epics), entertainment, and cuddles (ie. positive feedback when appropriate).

But those I think are side-lines to the actual appeal. And if prestige is the only reason you take on a leadership role, you’ll likely be miserable and frustrated.

Build it, and they will come

OK, so leading is a role with higher challenge and potentially higher rewards than following. However, it’s also a lot more work and commitment.

But the reason I describe it as a meta-game is that it doesn’t end with raids. If you plan to run regular events, then your goal is to build up a core of players who:

  1. will keep coming to the event
  2. will get on with each other
  3. will provide a good enough mix of character classes/ roles to allow the event to work
  4. are skilled enough to run the event

So your game revolves at least as much around other players as it does around the game. And your challenge? To build a lasting, stable social construct within which happy players will run regular raids.

Because of people being people, this goal has the capacity to be endlessly entertaining and endlessly frustrating.

All over the web, you can read about excrutiating guild dramas, ninja looters, fascist raid leaders, and all the various amusing ways in which it can all go so badly wrong. Guild leaders write sad messages to each other on how to avoid troublemakers, what to do when people just stop signing up for raids, how to deal with burnout among core members, and so on.

But if you have never had to worry about avoiding troublemakers, struggling to get enough signups and dealing with other people’s burnout then you’re missing some of the big challenges of the meta-game.

It’s not that fretting over recruitment is fun in itself. But beating the challenge of getting a guild or raid together and helping to forge them into a working team is a fantastic feeling of achievement.

My point is not that everyone should go lead stuff. That’s silly and it isn’t fun for a lot of people (including many who do it). But it does add an exciting layer of challenge to an increasingly moribund genre. PvE may not be able to surprise you, players definitely will.

Feeling more involved in the strategies

Think you know the raids and instances well? Try it when you’re keeping an eye on what everyone else is doing, to help pinpoint where things are going well or badly. Try it when you’re figuring out the healing meters despite not playing a healer. Try it when it’s your call on what strategy seems to work best for your group.

I’m not advocating that one sole person does all of these things. In my 10 mans, everyone chips in with ideas. But I love that I feel more involved in the encounters when I’m leading. I can’t just ignore anything the bosses do that doesn’t directly affect me. For example, as a tank, I wouldn’t normally care if the boss was throwing curses around because it’s never my job to decurse. As a raid leader, I better know which bosses do it so that I can make sure there’s a decurser handy and remind them about it beforehand.

In the same way that going through progression wipes on a boss will teach any player more about the encounter than just coming in when it’s on farm and looks easy, leading through raids just gives you a deeper understanding of what’s going on.

I find that tanking is more involving than dps for the same reasons, and because tanks usually control the mobs in a raid fight. You need to really understand the positioning as a tank, especially if the boss needs to be faced a certain way, picked up at a specific time, or kited in a special pattern.

Feeling more involved is the way in which I have more fun.

It’s like those RPGs where you get to build up your own team, level them up, gear them up, and work out their strategies. But with real people who will bitch at you on TS if they don’t think they’re getting enough raid time.

Why w0uld that not be fun?

Arachnophobia!! And raiding summary

Arrrgh, I hate spiders. It’s not a fully blown phobia but it is a reaction that goes beyond logic. Arrgh spider!! Must get it out of here KILL KILL Arrrrgh! Possibly accompanied by involuntary squeaking noises (on my part, not the spider).

I could  happily live without every MMO designer in existence being almost as infatuated with giant spiders as they are with bears and pigs. Or as my husband said about Tarren Mill: Who would have guessed that bears and giant spiders could live together in such harmony?

I also hate tanking the giant spider bosses, especially if they look remotely realistic. I just don’t like it.

My raid are of course sympathetic to my personal bane and support me by giggling madly every time I squeak in horror at seeing a bunch of teeny spiders hurtling down a ramp towards me. In WoW, you can also use a reagent (Baby Spice, don’t ask) to miniaturise players and NPCs and one of our rogues who also hates spiders is very sweet and shrinks the really huge ones for me.

Yes, yes, it’s all daft. But I still don’t like spiders.

Bear with me, the spider fixation is relevant this week because we got the Arachnophobia achievement (clear the spider wing in Naxx in under 20 mins) on both 25 man and 10 man. More on the tactics for this at the end.

Summary: 25 Man

Most important part: I won my bet with the raid leader from last week. We did one shot Thaddius. I had actually forgotten about the bet until one of our mages reminded me. I passed this on to the raid leader, she said (and I quote), “Might have guessed that dweeb would stitch me up,” and we agreed that instead of 100g I’d send her a frozen orb and she could make me some leg armour.

We had a great night on Wednesday. Cleared out the Spider, Plague, and Construct wings and also one-shotted Instructor Razuvious with two priest-tanks who had not done the mind control before. It’s very obvious that our dps has increased across the board, a couple of weeks of good raids in a dungeon full of bosses will do that for you.

They cleared out the rest of the instance on Thursday and went on to take a few pot shots at Malygos, getting him to phase 3 a couple of times.

Regardless of deep wounds nerfs, our fury warrior still tops the meters in most fights. He’ll be a terror when he actually does get a weapon upgrade from the raids.

In other notes, I hate tanking trash alongside a paladin. Yes I have good AE snap aggro but after a few seconds the mobs all glom back onto him. Was bitching with one of the ferals about this, she complains also that paladins are ‘greedy’ tanks. Must surely be time for consecration to get nerfed soon.

Summary: 10 man

Another super run this Saturday night which cleared Naxxramas in under 4 hours. We knocked out a few more achievements: Arachnophobia, Safety Dance, 100 Club. Only one wipe on Sapphiron due to someone getting ice blocked too near the centre.

Despite us making the best speed that we ever have, I didn’t feel entirely happy with the run. People were being a little messy with some of the trash pulls, there were deaths on trash that could have been avoided and I didn’t feel people in general were as focussed as they had been in the past.

We also missed the Patchwerk achievement by 19s. I think this will happen eventually as people gear up but it’s hard not to feel that if we’d have any other tank than a warrior, we could probably have made it (warriors do less damage while tanking than the other tanks, or at least I do.)

Have decided to focus next week on more of the ‘control’ achievements, depending if the signups support it. I’d like to aim for the achievement where you have to kill all four horsemen at the same time. Have informed people of this on guild bboards, which should keep them happily theorycrafting all week.

HOWTO: Arachnophobia

This achievement is for a speed run. You have to kill Maexxna in under 20 minutes from when you pulled Anub’Rekhan. Tactics are the same for 10 man as for 25 man. There’s not really a specific strategy for this, instead a few pointers to keep things moving:

  1. Speed up the looting. We actually left the loot on the corpses and ran back after we’d cleared the wing to sort it out. They stay there for ages.
  2. Brute force on Faerlina. Either kill the adds first or ignore them but don’t wait for her enrages.
  3. Sort out the assignments in advance. Everyone should know who is tanking which boss and what the healing assignments on the boss fights are before you start.
  4. Chain pulling the trash. You have 2-3 tanks, keep moving. By the time you do this achievement you should know roughly where the trash packs are and where the patrols might be. As a tank, keep an eye on what the other tanks are doing, and as soon as you’re free go pull something.
  5. Solid dps. It’s not a difficult achievement but in order to keep some speed up you’ll probably want your dps to be making 2k+.