Quitting vs taking a break

There are two types of gamer – and by gamer I mean people who would list gaming as one of their main hobbies. And this is valid across different sorts of games; board games, RPGs, computer games, etc.

1. One main game at a time. You might not actually get married to your current game of choice but your involvement is very deep. You probably spend a lot of time thinking and chatting about the game when you’re not actually playing it, whether it’s about running guilds or scenarios, or reading blogs or mailing lists.

2. Lots of different games on the go, possibly with a common bunch of friends.

If you are a type #1 like me (although I have bursts of type #2 and I think I’m drifting more that way with age also), then sooner or later you’ll get familiar with burnout. That game which has been an important part of your life for months/ years/ etc just … isn’t any more. Maybe it’s because the community has changed, maybe your life has changed, maybe something else caught your attention, maybe the game itself changed.

The first time, it may take you awhile to realise this has happened. People are resistant to change, especially when it might affect their social network, and moving on will leave a gap.

But does moving on have to be a permanent thing, or is it more like putting the old game on the back burner for awhile? I’ve done both before, and a lot of it comes down to the emotional situation you were in when you left, plus the state of the game/ community when you are thinking about returning.

Taking a break from WoW

It’s probably been obvious from the content here but my sub to WoW ran out a few weeks ago.

I’m not writing a long and impassioned post about severing all my ties to the game because I think it’s quite possible that I’ll go back sometime. It just won’t be in the foreseeable future. This did make me think about the difference between quitting a game for good (“I’m never going to play this again!”) and not making that final decision (“I don’t want to play it right now, but maybe sometime in the future…!”)

Clearly, developers would prefer the latter because it means that the people who were just taking a break can be lured back. It may not be until the next expansion but they’re still potential customers. And this is particularly key in F2P games because there’s no subscription fee to act as an extra barrier for returners.

On the other hand, we know how big a factor the social networks in games are in keeping people playing. By taking a break, even a fairly short one, a player is probably breaking off those social networks. No raid guild, for example, will keep a spot open for more than a few weeks (if that). Many players have short memories online and if you take a break for over a month or two, you may log back in to find that you are remembered by a few, but things won’t be the way they were before.

Why take a break?

For me, taking a break from a game is when I still like the game itself but I just don’t want to play it any more. It’s when I still like the guild but the burnout means I can’t bear to log in.

It’s not you, it’s me. Or maybe it is you (if you are the game) but I could forgive you in future, I just need a break. I don’t know what would have to change to make me want to come back. I just know it isn’t something I’m planning any time soon right now.

I’ve been through this before with WoW, personally. When TBC launched I was playing in a 40 man raid guild. It dissolved messily over a few months, and I was so invested in the guild (I’d been a class leader) that I just wanted to get away from the whole scene. I think I took about a year out, and when I did return, it was with a different server/ faction and I was astounded at being able to reconnect with my old guild (pre-40 man raiding on alliance, I mean).

It’s happened before, and it could happen again. So it’s goodbye, but not a final burning of all the bridges. I’ll miss my guild more than they’ll miss me; they’ll still be running the same instances and raids, chatting in gchat, working on guild achievements – just with one fewer grumpy person who was half burned out to take part. But then again, I have other things to do, games to play, people to meet. I wish them well.

Because this isn’t the first time I’ve taken a long break from a game, I had a rough idea what the issues might be in returning later. Those are mostly:

  • Can you pick up your old social network or is it time to start again? This is particularly tough for raiders. A casual raid group might be able to find a spot for a returning player, but you can’t rely on a more progression minded raid doing the same thing. This is especially true in a 10 man raid where they won’t be so big on having substitutes and rotations.
  • And can you catch up with your old character or would it be easier to start again? Blizzard are trying to make it easier and easier for a returning (or new) player to catch up with the current endgame, so as long as you don’t mind LFD, chances are that this won’t be an issue in WoW.

For example, I haven’t used realIDs in a big way in WoW, but once I decided I was taking a long break, I did swap realIDs with a lot of guildies and in game friends. It’s a practical issue at that point. If/ when I go back, they may be on different alts or in different guilds but I’ll still be able to touch base. It’s not quite like going cold into a new (or old) game where you don’t know anyone or can’t find anyone you know.

Plus I know I will want to play Diablo III when that comes out, and it will be cool to be able to chat to my WoW friends on battle.net when that happens too.

Have you taken a long break from a game and then returned? What issues did you face?

Thoughts on burnout in MMOs and how to avoid it

via pwnware.com I was reading about Nick Yee’s idea of the five-phase player lifecycle in a game.

This can be paraphased as:

  1. Starting out. Everything is new and exciting.
  2. Ramping up. You know the basics, now you’re setting more long term goals.
  3. Mastery. This includes being settled in a social group for endgame as well as mastering your character, for whatever type of endgame you decide to do.
  4. Burnout.
  5. Casual/ Recovery.

The first thing that strikes me is that many players (probably the majority) don’t ever go through the  mastery and burnout phases. They hop straight from ramping up to casual, possibly even skipping the ramping up phase if the game offers that option.  (There should probably be a “6. Bored/ Distracted by new game or hobby” phase too.)

This means that casual guilds potentially attract a mixture of ex-hardcore players and never-will-be-hardcore players. Or in other words, our definitions for casual need  more work because some people will play a game casually but still be far more invested in it than others who play similar hours.

The other thing that strikes me is that ramping up is often seen as a noobish phase. It’s the part which the elite players try to rush or even jump, and everyone else is encouraged to short cut it by making use of offsite guides, videos, and other player generated tutorials.

And yet, if you ask players which their personal golden age was in their favourite game, often it will be the one where they had the longest time in the first two phases. Usually the first MMO they played, or the first one they were invested enough in to master.

So the pressure to master a game quickly might actually be encouraging players to have less fun, and get them to burn out faster too.

Another thought is that if people keep playing similar games and then picking similar classes, it will mean that they master a new game more quickly. Sometimes that’s even part of the appeal. If you anticipate a lot of competition in the role or an aggressive playerbase, it’s a confidence booster to know that you have previous experience with a similar class.

Once enough people do this, there is no one for the ramping up people to play with. We see this happen in older games. Starcraft (original)  is a good example, people have been playing that competitively for over 10 years. How many of them do you think are still ramping up or might be fun to play with for a newbie? Eventually, designers don’t bother with much of a tutorial. They assume the majority of players will be familiar with the genre. You see this a lot in shooters at the moment.

And people who pick a similar class because they just love the playstyle will still master it more quickly. That means that sometimes, playing the games and classes you love is a fast track to burnout.

I suspect this is part of the reason why post-WoW style MMOs have struggled to maintain long term subscriptions. The hardcore players mastered them fast because they were so similar to existing games, and it’s very difficult for a new game to instantly ship with enough content and depth to keep the hardcore interested for several months. Yet at the same time, casual players checked the games out and decided for whatever reason that they didn’t want to make a longterm commitment.

Burnout can be a mental health issue

If you type burnout into google, you won’t get a bunch of gaming links up top. You’ll be directed to mental health websites.

Here’s a definition which I picked from one of them:

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.

Being burned out on a game is very different from just being bored of it. This is why burnout is so strongly associated with hardcore players, who make the most commitments and feel the most stress.

So if you care at all about your own health, you really should act if you feel that you are burning out. Why? It will make you happier and less stressful in game and, perhaps more importantly, can show you how to cope better with burnout in real life if you should ever face that.

There are two types of player, those who burn out and those who don’t

And yet, there are players who do play similar games or similar classes for years at a time without ever seeming to get bored. They either find challenges in tweaking the playing style they love, or they enjoy the ease which familiarity gives. Or maybe they mostly know how to skip happily to the casual phase of play without ever worrying about mastery.

So what are the secrets to avoiding burn out?

  1. Recognise the signs of burnout before it hits. Unfortunately you probably need to have burned out on a game at least once to do this accurately. If you start hating the thought of logging in on a specific character or to do a specific instance or doing so puts you into a bad mood, then that’s a fairly good indicator.
  2. Is there one specific issue causing the burnout. One instance that you detest, some players in your guild who are driving you nuts? If so, can you find a way to minimise those?
  3. Diversify your game. Try a different character or a different spec. Join another guild with an alt and get to know new people. Try a different server.
  4. Play less on the character/ playstyle that is burning you out. This can be tough if you have time commitments to a raid guild, but you won’t be any benefit to anyone if you burn out. And no decent guild leadership would pressure  you to stay if that was the case.  (If they do, it’s a sign that you need to find a new guild anyway.)
  5. Diversify your hobbies. Putting all your free time into one hobby may help in mastering it, but it can help a lot with burnout to look at doing other things too. Getting more sleep also can’t hurt.
  6. Step away from or minimise stressful commitments. If being a guild leader or raid leader is stressing you out to the point of burnout, find someone to share the job or step down. Yes, it’s hard but this is a game. Also, it won’t help anyone if you burn out. It is sometimes possible to find ways to delegate or reorganise guild management so as to put less stress on one person, look into those. The bonus of recognising the signs of burnout is that you can do this before it is too late.
  7. Talk to people. Make new friends. Friends and communities in game can be surprisingly supportive, even just by being there. If your community is not supportive, it’s time to find another one. Spending more time with friends offline can help a lot too, it just resets your perspective.
  8. Know your limits. If you have X hours per week to play a game, don’t mimic a playstyle that really requires X+1. Don’t rush to be as hardcore as possible if it’s just not practical. Stress between life/ gaming balance will make burnout more likely and may make the consequences way more severe.
  9. Redefine your notion of success. In WoW at the moment, a hardcore raider might see hard mode Lich King as the only achievement worthy of note. And yet, many casual guilds are rightly proud of their normal mode kills. A casual player with no guild might be just as proud of having gotten a character to 80 and earned enough emblems to buy heirlooms for alts. So who is right?
  10. Consider whether you want to make the shift to a casual/ recovery playstyle. I’ve mentioned a couple of times the possibility of switching guilds or reducing responsibilities in game.
Enhanced by Zemanta

The Myth that One Raid Endgame Fits All

scrusi posts today about why he thinks the Lich King endgame leads to boredom, and underused raid instances. I read this, and I think about the TBC endgame, which also led to boredom and underused raid instances. (Ask anyone whose raid was stuck in Serpentshrine for most of the expansion.)

I suspect that all raiding endgames, when stretched out over months or years, will lead to … boredom and underused raid instances. The only difference is who gets bored, how quickly, which raid instances are underused, and which guilds feel most of the pressure.

So what is the ideal?

  • Raids become a regular hobby. The raid group becomes like a sports team with scheduled games, et al.
  • You should always have something to do, and something to aim for both individually and as a raid group.
  • Your group should be able to replace any members who leave so that it can keep raiding.
  • If you come late to the expansion, you should be able to join a group of your friends.
  • There should be enough new or varied content that people in your group don’t get bored.

To my mind, the big issue with raiding endgames is that players have to balance up group progression vs individual progression. If all raid content consisted of PUG raids with relaxed gear/ ability requirements and there was a lot of solo (or small group) content where players could go for progression, then we could have a setup in which one endgame fits all. It might be that newer games try a version of this model. It’s probably easier to support and would make a lot of players much happier and less stressed.

And yet, progressing as part of a group can lead to a deep and rewarding gaming experience. For a lot of players, it’s key to why we enjoy MMOs, because we can play alongside team mates and friends for weeks, months, or even years. If all players started at the beginning of the expansion and progressed alongside their raid, then they’d be able to take on the content when it was introduced. Given enough difficulty sliders, they’d get through it somehow at an appropriate pace. But this doesn’t always happen. Some players start playing later into the expansion. Some change groups for social reasons, scheduling reasons, or play style reasons. Maybe you want a more hardcore experience. Maybe you decide you would prefer to raid with your mates. Maybe something comes up iRL and you need to switch from raiding four nights a week to one.

There are no easy answers. Either progression is less important, so newer players can catch up easily with established groups. Or else progression is king, players are forced to raid with other people at a similar progression level, and guild hopping returns as the recommended way for people to ‘jump a few tiers.’

Accessibility means that Blizzard have prioritised letting newer players gear quickly and raid with their friends in Wrath. Those friends have no need to go back and run older instances again, and (more importantly) they don’t generally want to because they already burned out on that content.

In TBC, recruitment posed a different type of issue to guilds. It was harder to just gear up the new alt or new player and let them join. Guild hopping was recognised as the best way for a new player to manage this, which probably suited some people but made others a lot unhappier. Ultimately, forcing progression raiders to go back to older instances to gear or key new recruits certainly didn’t help with avoiding burnout for them. Using less progressed guilds as feeders to more hardcore guilds (ie. they recruited new people and trained/ geared them, who then left to join more hardcore raids) also gave them a demoralising level of turnover. It wasn’t a better raid system, it just hit a different group of players more harshly.

We know that players can be enticed to run content by suitable rewards, but that adds an extra element of pressure into the game which won’t suit some groups. (Imagine if the rewards for running Naxx, Ulduar, and TotC in the same week were so high that competitive raiders felt pushed to do as many as possible.)

Weekly raid quests have been fairly successful. PUGs form quickly. But it’s not really the same experience as running those old raids when they were new, with a bunch of similarly geared people.

For all that some people complain about WoW’s lack of innovation, Blizzard have tinkered a good deal with the raid game, and how new content is introduced into the end game in general.  They’ve made changes during Wrath that would have really eased pressure in TBC. For example, being able to extend the locks on a raid instance means that even raids on a very casual schedule aren’t pressured to clear everything in a week before it resets,

So why don’t new players form new raid groups?

So if people who aren’t burned out on the older instances still want to run them for fun, what is stopping them?

The answer is, because you need a group. And because a lot of people don’t want to organise one, especially not with other new players who they may have to teach. Only at the very start of an expansion do raids start from the beginning (and even then, a lot of them will be full of experienced raiders from other games or expansions.)

Logic says that raid progression is an old and outdated mechanic. The type of progression that groups can earn via rated battlegrounds will probably work much better for WoW. Gear matters but good play and tactics mean that a skilled team can work around it while gearing new members. But that’s PvP.

And yet, some of the best experiences I’ve had in MMOs have been watching entire raid groups grow and learn together. Very soon, I suspect, we’ll rate these experiences alongside waiting 17 hours for a boss to spawn or crippling death penalties: memories of an earlier and more hardcore era.

State of the LFD: Repetition, repetition, repetition

Patch 3.3 in WoW was released in the US back on the 8th December 2009. That means we have had the random dungeon finder for almost three months – my how time flies when you’re having fun.

There’s no doubt that the new tool has been a great success. It has never been easier to find a 5-man dungeon run on any toon at any level than it is right now. Queues are still virtually instant for tanks, and not much longer for healers, which just shows that there are more dps wanting to run instances than there are tanks and healers. So tanks in particular make up less than 20% of the population and a lot of people on hybrid characters aren’t interested in tanking. None of this is surprising. And the wait for dps to get into a group is still a lot less than if people had to form up on their own servers using trade chat.

However, there have been some big challenges for the new tool also.

  • Throwing people with wildly different playing styles together leads to friction. Not only that, but this can put a lot of pressure on new 80s, newer players, and people trying to learn new specs.
  • Cyber-bullying. People find new and interesting ways to grief each other whenever any new functionality is added.
  • Can the hardware cope with the added activity?
  • Burnout.

Throwing random people together into a group can lead to friction, but can also work out. It all depends on the individuals. So it’s a challenge, but not by any means an impossible one. The player base just needs to decide whether it’s able and willing to work together on common goals or not with random people. Issues like rolling need/ greed on frozen orbs, rolling on offspec gear, and the like will sort themselves out in the wash. We won’t all end up agreeing, but we will all end up with some variety of widely accepted compromise.

Cyber-bullying is a larger subject than this post (maybe a future post, or series of posts), and has been going on ever since people have been able to communicate online. It’s nasty and pernicious, but in a PUG you always have the option to just leave and log out. And to put the offender on /ignore, which guarantees not only that you never have to hear from them again, but that the dungeon tool will never group you with them again either.

Hardware is a problem that can be fixed by throwing more money at it. In fact, I haven’t seen a full instances screen at all lately, which makes me think that this is exactly what Blizzard have been doing.

So let’s talk about burnout

People burn out on games for all sorts of different reasons.

  • Run out of goals. You’ve done everything that you want in the game, and you’re bored.
  • Hit the brick wall. There are barriers preventing you from doing your remaining goals in the game, and you see no way to overcome them. And so you’re bored.
  • Repetition ad infinitum. There are goals remaining for you in the game but you would rather skin yourself alive with a potato peeler than set foot into ((overly repetitive content of choice)) ever again.
  • Dramageddon. There are goals remaining for you in the game but you don’t ever want to play with these people again and they’re in your guild, on your server, and you may even know them in real life. You can’t get away from them without leaving the game. But doing stuff with them is driving you nuts.
  • Future goals trump current goals. There are current goals remaining for you in the game, but you choose not to pursue them because it would make it harder for you in future. For example, you choose not to level a new alt now because you want to save it for Cataclysm. So you’re bored until then.

Often many of these conditions apply at the same time. If you are bored anyway because you have run out of goals, you may be more irritable with your guild (and vice versa if many of them are also bored.) Hitting barriers in game also tends to dent the mood, especially if other friends don’t face these issues. (Maybe they just have more time to play.)

Repetition, however, is the game killer. All PvE MMOs rely heavily on some kind of grind, whether you need to grind for crafting materials, or daily quests, or instances, or raids. And for happy players, these grinds are a bonus. They let a player settle into a comfortable daily routine in game, which is fun for a lot of people.

It’s the same comfortable grind which makes so many facebook games so appealing. MMOs aren’t so very far from that mould. It’s just that while levelling you don’t see the repetition so strongly as at endgame. So when a player is bored of the endgame repetition, something’s got to give.

Wrath has encouraged more endgame repetition than any previous expansion in Warcraft. Doubling up of the 10 and 25 man instances has meant many people run the same raid instance several times a week. Ease of gearing alts has meant that people  can (if they choose) run heroics several times a day on different alts. And then raid several extra times a week on those alts too.

So there are plenty of ways for a player to fill in the extra hours in WoW – and even easier if you raid and are on a busy server with lots of pick up raids running. But they are extremely repetitive. The thrill of playing and learning a new alt will wear off in time, and it will wear off more quickly in Wrath because it’s just that much easier to access the content.

So whilst improved access to content is removing some of the barriers which had been causing burnout before — people getting burned out because they needed to run those heroics and raids to gear up but just couldn’t get the groups — instead people are playing more and then hitting repetition burnout.

Bored players, +  5-man random heroics = ???

I’m not saying that everyone is bored, that would be silly.

But increasingly I’m finding that I get sloppy in 5 mans. I can’t be bothered to tackle the pulls neatly, and we’re over geared enough that no one cares whether I do or not (except me) and it won’t affect the result anyway.

This increase of well geared players who simply don’t care as much as they used to is starting to drag the instances down. People still run them enthusiastically, they still want the badges, and they still want to play alts. But increasingly, I’m seeing people very obviously not bothering to play as well as they could. And while it’s fine to chill out in 5 man instance runs when you are over geared, I think that all the repetition is taking its toll.

The LFD tool isn’t doomed by any means. It’s holding up well. But it might not be a bad thing if some of those bored players took a break from random 5 mans for awhile, both for them and for the rest of the player base.

And as for the state of the game? Blizzard are taking the smart step in the next mini-patch with nudging bored PvE players towards battlegrounds, where the repetition is broken up by getting to compete against other players.

Plus a new-mini raid with some dragons, and new shiny loot to entice everyone who isn’t Arthas’ed out on raiding this expansion.

And perhaps more enticing still … hints of new pre-Cataclysm changes, and quests, possibly heralding more content for solo players too.

In memory of absent friends

Towards the end of the year, it’s normal for us to look back over the last 12 months and take stock. What has changed? What goals have we met? Have we made any new friends? Lost any old ones? Learned anything new? Had major life changes? Anything unexpected that we coped with well … or badly?

And looking over the raid roster, I’m struck by how many people I have raided with since the release of Wrath (call that about a year). Many of them I barely knew when that year began, if at all. We aren’t all best friends, we don’t all mix or chat socially outside raids, but I feel that I know all of them even if that just means names, personality traits, voices on voice chat and maybe a few shared jokes and experiences. We spent a fair amount of time in each other’s company — even my one raid per week is a regular 3 hour weekly slot. That’s more time than I spend with a lot of my real life friends, whose lives are so busy these days that we have to plan a few weeks ahead to meet up.

Some players  we were fond  of had to bow out during the year either for good reasons (new job! new baby! switched up to more hardcore raid guild!), less happy ones, or just plain burnout with the game. It’s very easy when you are bound up with a regular raiding schedule to feel that people in online games have short memories. If you take a couple of weeks out, you might be replaced – after all, the raids need to keep running either with or without you. And it’s easy to feel that you’d be quickly forgotten also.

But when I look over the old Naxx signups, I don’t think we’ve forgotten those names who no longer raid with us (I’m sure there are some which have a special place in raid leaders’ memories, for sure :) ). I think we’d be thrilled to see them if they ever hopped back into the game to say Hi. I don’t know whether there would be room in raids, that’s harder to organise, but I know they aren’t forgotten. Thinking even further back, I still chat to Arb about people we used to play DaoC with years ago. For most  I never knew their real names, but there was some level on which we knew them as friends with a shared hobby, who used to play games with us. Or else they were ‘those guys’ who were jerks in game and still are the subject of massive bitch fests when we can be bothered.

And it’s part of the normal cycle of gaming that people join and leave. Life happens, circumstances change, people get bored. There is a quote I read (and I don’t know the origin) that runs: We will all be the same in five years as we are now except for two things: the books we have read and the people we’ve met.

Here’s to all the people we met this year, and to the people we’ll meet in the year to come.

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?

Is it a good idea to delay burnout?

In the same vein as ‘slow food’ , ‘slow travel’ etc there is a philosophy of  ‘slow gaming’.

This is all about getting out of the rat race, playing at your own pace, and taking time to smell the flowers and enjoy the scenery. And adherents to the slow gaming view of life often claim that playing in this way delays the dreaded burnout.

I’m a  big believer that one of the strengths of MMOs is that there are lots of different ways for people to enjoy the same game, and the key to having fun is to either cut a solo swathe or find other people who want to play the game in the same way that you do.

So in theory I’m all in favour of ‘slow gaming’ if that’s what people want to do. In practice, I’ve seen people in game get up on their high horse about how pointless the endgame grind can be and how much better they are for delaying it for as long as possible.

This I find stranger. Yes the endgame grind in any game can be pointless and dull (the clue is in the word ‘grind’). If you find it pointless and dull you can go find something more fun to do. There are other games. There are other hobbies. Although some people do get addicted to MMOs, it’s not actually compulsary.

I do think people find it a wrench to stop playing an MMO when they’re no longer having fun. There are social ties, it’s become a part of your life. In a sense you’re walking away from a social circle and hobby all in one. This is really not a dilemma that anyone faces with single player games. But if you are avoiding the endgame then you’re less likely to be in a tight social circle in the first place since that is where all the scheduling and team play is focussed.

So it’s one thing to take your time, play casually, and enjoy the levelling game at your own pace. It’s quite another to pathologically avoid the endgame by finding increasingly eccentric timesinks and goals for yourself that don’t involve xp. I don’t mean that Big Brother needs you to level up and take your place at the millstone of endgame, comrade. Just that going out of your way to avoid it because ‘omg endgame!!11!!!’ isn’t necessarily better.

Or is it?

This is the game that never ends

If you’re enjoying the game and the virtual world, maybe you just don’t want it to ever end. The real world keeps going until you die, after all (presumably it keeps going afterwards also but that’s more of a philosophical question).

Most MMOs are heavily focussed these days. You start at low level, you explore and quest and meet people and do things and eventually get to high level. Then you do whatever people do at high level.

But if what you really wanted was a sandbox virtual world, this makes no sense. And particularly for games with a strong raiding theme, the chances of having to march to someone else’s schedule at endgame if you want to do all those raiding things are very high. Slow gaming is a rebellion against this, but in a game that’s not really set up to support it.

It’s also a lonely route. The majority of players will tend to go with the flow of the game. They won’t all race to max level, but they also won’t want to go out of their way to avoid levelling. They will not understand the slow gamer, who seems to be playing a different game for no good reason.

So I end up asking myself, is slow gaming just better suited to single player games? The answer may be yes –but it’s not a good answer if what players want is the social contact of an MMO.

Delaying Burnout

So I’m coming around to my actual main point here. Is there any point deliberately delaying burnout? Maybe it’s better to just play at whatever pace best suits you and if you feel bored or burned out … just stop. Go do something else. Take a break or move on.

So if that means you speed through content, run your own guild, spend 6 months being hyperactive and then burn out, then do it. Just when you do burn out, don’t torture yourself. It’s a game, not a job.

But burnout is miserable and frustrating, and we like to avoid those kinds of experiences. And although it may be inevitable in games, MMOs offer the illusion of ‘the game that never ends’ so if you can just avoid burning out, maybe you really could keep playing the same game until the day it closes up shop.

I think the lure of the virtual world that never ends is very strong. And it’s based on the notion that everything we do in game is persistent (even though in practice this may just mean until the next patch, if not sooner) that we invest so much effort into progressing our characters.

So I do wonder if slow playing, and any other methods we use to avoid burnout and find ways to make a game more fun for ourselves and others when deep down we know that we are already bored, are ways to try to make the game we WANT out of the game we HAVE.

There’s such a demand for a good sandbox game. I wonder if we will ever see one again.