Life in the sandbox

A couple of posts cropped up on my RSS reader recently which throw some light on the reality of life in sandbox MMOs.

Stargrace posts about her struggles in Wurm Online, and Chris Smith@Levelcapped exudes a sense of achievement in finding somewhere to live in the same game. This is clearly a game for people who like the idea of needing complex multi stage processes to build even the simplest of items, not to mention needing constant help from the wiki/ community to help figure it out. I do keep meaning to try this one, but I’m also not sure I have the mental fortitude to make it through the first day and have to figure out how to feed myself in game.

There are also plenty of blog posts describing exciting times people have had in EVE, but this post from Syncaine describes, dare I say, a more typical evening of searching around  for fights that don’t happen. If you played WAR you may also remember some of the complaints about PvP often involving battlegroups searching for and taking unoccupied keeps rather than going for the full scale siege standoff.

This is because, as Syncaine mentions in comments on that post, part of the art of fighting in a sandbox game is making sure you’re in a winning position (ie. have a larger army et al) before you get into a fight at all. And finding an undefended target is simply smart target selection.

It is also the nature of sandbox games that you can’t predict exactly what will happen when you log in. You may have an activity planned that gets disrupted by something else that is going on in game. You may plan a night of sailing your fleet around Hispaniola in Pirates of the Burning Sea (I do have a soft spot for that game) but find that all the actual fights are going on somewhere else. The best way to actually guarantee you’ll get the action you prefer and on a timezone that suits you is to be in a leadership role.

I’m not entirely convinced that sandbox games can ever be more than a minority interest. And I say this as someone who has played and loved them, back in MUD/MUSH days. And unfortunately, people who like them are shy about mentioning the many downsides. They tend to strongly favour organised groups, there is often huge amounts of politics (I mean, to an extent that would dwarf guild drama in WoW), they strongly favour people with large amounts of time, or flexible playing schedules, there can be long extended periods of boredom and no guarantee that you’ll actually be around when the exciting stuff happens, and I’m not really sure if exciting stuff ever really happens in a game like Wurm. (I do still want to try it sometime, but … yeah.) They are also just as fraught with elitists as any other online game, and although some games make it easier for casual players to carve out a niche, you will have to pick your niche carefully.

Fact is, you probably have to work harder for your fun in a sandbox game and there’s no guarantee how much fun it’ll ever actually be. It takes a leap of faith to throw yourself into these things. I found it worthwhile when I was playing them, and I really treasure some of the memories of people I met and stuff we did in game.

So excuse me if I’m dubious about claims by SWTOR haters (and honestly, if you need to hate, why hate on a game that’s actually fun when there are a lot of easier targets?) that if it fails all that money could go into big budget sandbox games. Truth is, we still don’t know if a big budget (or small budget) sandbox game could have wide mass appeal (ie. a million players), we only know that no one has really succeeded in making one that could. At least, not with a virtual world attached. Unless you count social networks like Facebook, which may be the biggest sandbox of all.

But something tells me that Facebook #2 isn’t the kind of sandbox ‘game’ that the themepark haters are hoping for …

I think also about games like HSX (which I am still hooked on — it’s a sort of stock market simulation for upcoming films) which isn’t really a sandbox per se, but has that appeal of being able to research and use real life information into your gaming. eg. I made a pile of cash on Red Tails this weekend by effectively betting that it would do better at the US box office than players had predicted based on the HSX stock price. You may say “Yes but that’s a simulation, not a sandbox game,” but all successful sandbox games that I know of are also simulations. World simulations.

And that’s the curse of the genre as well as the blessing, because they’re full of players who don’t want to stick to any setting or  theme other than winning at all costs. (Did I mention that metagaming is also often rife?)

Thought of the Day: Leadership, boredom and MMOs

The mark of an effective leader in a MMO is how well they can achieve goals which require players to repeat boring tasks such as:

  • raiding farm content
  • sitting on the reserve bench
  • guarding a warp gate for 4 hours

You have to persuade people that the boring task is meaningful and important. You also have a limited toolbox available from which to reward or punish players.

Sandbox Games don’t have grind, they just have boredom

I was musing the role of a good MMO leader when reading over Tobold’s posts about his time in EVE Online.

EVE is described as a sandbox game, which means that players get thrown into the virtual world and mostly left to their own devices. A lot of content is provided by other people by some form of PvP or competition. Players in a sandbox game are encouraged to stake a claim to various parts of the game world and defend it from others. My first MMO (DaoC) had sandbox elements. Before that, our MUSHes had strong sandbox elements too – they didn’t involve PvP exactly but people definitely did compete over resources.

It is absolutely a feature of these games that you will spend a lot of time sitting around and doing nothing (or doing something very dull) while waiting for something to happen.

So in Tobold’s example, he warps into a 0.0 system and gets blown out of the skies. But what about those poor bastards whose ‘job’ in game is to sit around in the middle of their boring sector, waiting for someone to zone in? And they have to try to keep a 24 hour watch rota if they are properly hardcore because people play in all sorts of timezones.

I have been that person on the Albion Milegate. We used to spend hours sitting around and chatting. Maybe a few people would occasionally go on a wide patrol because they were bored. In a good evening we’d get maybe one or two groups trying to come through who we’d beat down with superior numbers. That would be it, for the entire evening.

But if you are an MMO leader who wants to hold some territory, you need to convince people that they should be sitting around for hours waiting for something to happen. If you don’t, then someone could sneak through. It’s the problem of the absentee landlord. The only way you can prove that you hold domain is to be there to fight off any intruders. And since players complain like crazy if intrusions are only permitted at pre-arranged times (they tried this with bases in CoH) then the defender needs to keep a 24 hour guard. Depending on how hardcore they are.

Now sandbox games can be extremely lively and exciting too. The thrill of having a guild that holds its own keep or territory is huge. It’s just that the exciting parts are unpredictable (or in fact sod’s law says that they always happen just after you went to bed, or in someone else’s timezone.)

So sandbox games require people to be bored because they can’t offer scheduled entertainment. You have to be around, “just in case.”

Progression raiding needs people to sit out and do nothing

By comparison, let’s look at PvE. In hardcore progression raiding, a raid group will make a schedule. And then they will recruit a few more people than they need to make sure that there are substitutes in case anyone has to miss a session.

That means some people will be signing up every week to not raid. We’ve been discussing on our raid forums this week how best to reward people for being substitutes. And unfortunately there’s no real reward that can possibly make it up to anyone for missing a first kill, or missing a load of badges/ experience in the raid when a new raid has just opened. The satisfaction of knowing that by doing nothing, you helped your raid, is not really very comforting when you’re fretting over being left behind.

And duly, raid guilds often have trouble with substitutes leaving for greener pastures if they don’t feel that the raiding rotation is fair.

PUGs never have this problem because they don’t run scheduled raids. They just grab whoever is online, wants to go, has the right gear/spec, and has enough time. So PUGs guarantee raid fun (to some extent) and no one ever has to sit out.

So PvE/raid games require people to be bored because they must offer scheduled entertainment but need a fixed number of raiders of fixed roles. You have to be around, “just in case someone else has to drop.”

Either way, being a hardcore leader in both types of MMO requires that you persuade people that it is worth them logging in for hours of boredom in order to help the group. Is it surprising that many designers are pondering whether PUGs, open groups, or dynamic events are the way forwards?

Raiding and the Great Healer Problem

Of the three main roles in the ‘holy trinity’, it’s healing which changes the most between small groups and large raids.

In a single group, one healer usually supports the rest of the party. There may be an off-healer along as well who switches between dps and healing as needed. In a raid, there are many more people who may need to be healed, and also a larger healing corps who need to somehow coordinate who is going to heal which characters.

Unlike tanking, which is easy to organise (ie. you tank mob X, I’ll tank mob Y, and that other guy can grab the adds), sorting out the healing is a more complex problem. Healers in raids are often given very specific assignments to make this easier to manage. But it isn’t easy to always get this right. Assignments depend on the encounter, on the strengths and gear of the various players involved, and on the raid group itself.

Healing is also fundamentally different from tanking and dps. With tanking, there’s a set number of mobs who need to be tanked. It’s very easy to predict how many tanks you will need for an encounter and that’s unlikely to vary much. With dps, more is always better. You can always make a kill faster. But with healing, there is a maximum of heals that the raid will ever need. If you can see how much damage is thrown out, then you can figure out how many healers can take care of it. Healers can also ‘snipe’ each other’s heals — if I get a heal in before you and heal a player back to full health, then your heal will be wasted. We talk about overhealing (ie. heals that were wasted because the person they landed on didn’t need them) and it measures how much more time and energy was spent on healing than the encounter really needed.

It would be easy to imagine mechanics which converted overheals into something more useful. Maybe extra damage on the target’s target, or some kind of buff, or even just storing them in a buffer to be used the next time the person takes damage. But that’s not a common feature in MMOs – the skill of healing is to be smart enough not to waste power on overheals that you might need later. (In WoW at the moment, overhealing isn’t a major issue, healers have more than enough mana. But there’s a pass on this next patch.)

There are actually three big healer problems connected with raiding in WoW. At least one of them is common to just about every MMO which has healing classes.

How can we find enough healers?

Healers are often in short supply anyway, it’s not as popular a role as dps or tanking. Raid healers also anecdotally burn out more quickly than any other role. It’s a stressful job with low visibility – people often blame healers for wipes even when it wasn’t their fault. Healers also aren’t usually as involved in the details of an encounter, it’s very easy to spend the whole time staring at a raid interface and frantically trying to keep the green bars from dropping (aka playing whack-a-mole).

It has been a constant struggle to find healers in most MMOs I have played. Oddly enough, we have plenty in WoW at the moment. I think dual specs have invigorated the healing classes (which are all hybrids in Warcraft so can have a dps as well as a healing spec now if they want). But this is also partly because healing requirements drop over time, which is my next point.

I healed myself out of a job!

Jov@World of Snarkcraft covers this better than I ever could.

As a raid gears up, the tanks take less damage, the dps kill the mobs more quickly, and everyone learns to stay out of the fire. So the raid in general needs less healing. If they are tackling hard modes or just want to speed up the farm runs, then it makes a lot of sense to replace an unnecessary healer (who would be bored anyway) with more dps.

Dual specs should have provided an answer to this. Get one of the healers to switch to dps, no problem. But there is a problem. Firstly, what if the player wanted to heal? It’s what they had originally specced and geared for, after all. And second, hard modes can involve highly tuned dps races. So that healer can’t be replaced by an inexperienced dps in offspec gear that’s a tier or so behind the content. They need to be replaced by a main spec dps character to beat the various timers.

Short form: raids need more healers during initial progression than later in the raid instance lifetime. Not only does this mean that it makes sense to drop one or more healers from the group (until the next raid instance comes out), it forces the existing healers to be competitive with each other. If one class turns out to be better suited to healing current raid content than others, then it’s pretty clear who is less likely to be dropped.

What makes this worse is that the rest of the raid group is often very happy about being able to drop healers and make the kill faster. This does nothing to make the remaining healers feel wanted (and a lot of people play support classes because they like feeling wanted), it’s more as if it slows everyone down to have to take the support classes along.

There are solutions to this. Dual spec is one of them, healers being better able to boost raid dps (maybe via buffs or an ability to turn overheals into dps) is another. Not tuning hard modes to be such total dps races is another (ie. so that it’s sufficient to get a healer to switch to their dps offspec).

In any case, it’s hard to escape the feeling that if the healers do a really good job, people will just think: great, we can drop a healer.

Raid healing is boring

This may be a personal thing but I find raid healing terrifically tedious and this is why. In a 5 man group, the healer gets to make a lot of decisions all the time about who to heal and which heal to use. 10 man raids are still small enough that healers need to adapt on the fly.  But once you get into a large raid, it’s very likely that you will be given a fixed assignment. You may get told off later if you drift from your assignment, even if the raid was completely successful and you kept your healing assignments up as well.

Managing a team of healers is a complex job. To make it more tractable, healing leads do use fixed assignments and the tactics require healers to stick to them. So healing in a large raid often means that you lose a lot of the normal fun decision making of healing in groups. You don’t even get to decide who you heal. No wonder people refer to healers as healbots. I’ve never felt so much like a healbot as in a large raid, and I used to be a healing lead in 40 man raids. Not only that but you probably won’t even get to use half the spells you use in 5 man instances.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges in raid healing is how to setup your UI and addons so that you can most easily work out what’s going on. In any discussion about addons, you’ll see the healers weighing in most loudly. This is because a tank mostly just needs to see the boss and any adds. So do dps. But a healer needs to be able to see the mobs AND the entire raid. And because healing is so often reactive, they need everything to be represented in a way that makes it easy to react very quickly.

This would be vastly easier if WoW could steal an idea from WAR and give everyone the ability to have both a friendly and an unfriendly target. What they actually do instead is let you have a focus target (which may be friendly or unfriendly) as well as your main target. It’s workable but not as simple as if heals always went to your friendly target and damage to the unfriendly one.

By comparison, raid tanking IS different from group tanking but it’s not any less interesting.

A lot of this does come down to WoW in general. If healing raids was more similar to healing groups then it wouldn’t be an issue. You could imagine a game where most healing spells are actually group heals. In that game you’d assign one healer per group and focus on positioning so that a group would always be within heal range. You could imagine a game where it actually wasn’t possible for a healer to heal outside their group. That would give them back the flexibility to decide how to keep their group alive.

But in that case, it simply wouldn’t be possible to drop the number of healers in a raid. You’d need one per group. And maybe more than one for the main tank group. It’s not a flexible way to manage the setup.

Being tedious is not necessarily a problem in itself. Some players prefer to have their assignments predetermined. And it’s way less of an issue for healing classes that specialise in single target healing anyway. If you are mostly healing the tank in raids, and mostly healing the tank in instances, then there’s no reason that raid healing will be any duller for you. But if you like cross-healing (ie. healing whoever you like in the raid) then it’s frustrating to be told that you can’t do it.

I always found battleground healing far more fun, for that reason.

WoW Raiding just isn’t kind to healers

I think it’s the highly tuned aspect of WoW raids that makes them so awkward for healers. When you have a fixed number of people in the raid and a lot of pressure to kill bosses as fast as possible, the raid spots which don’t directly add to damage are under more stress.

I don’t mean that I haven’t enjoyed raid healing in WoW on the occasions when I have done it. But they haven’t really nailed yet how to make raid healing fun, and even the encounters that are designed to test healers (like Loatheb) are often dull for everyone else.

For me, the absolute high water mark was healing Zul Aman on my druid. Hex Lord Malacrass was an absolutely awesome fight – busy in lots of ways, lots for everyone to do, and it really did test the healers. I was proud when we got that and I was there. (The low water mark was 40-man Razuvious because I didn’t get to heal at all on my priest and had 38 people shouting at me on Vent whenever the mind control broke.)

If you play a healer, how do you feel about raid healing?