Breaking the Bond: things that disrupt a player’s MMO experience

Cynwise writes this week about ‘The Tyranny of Classes’ and wonders what happens when a class you once loved doesn’t feel right for you any more. Maybe it’s because your raid group has a greater need for a different role and you are tired of being the unwanted umpteenth melee dps and really really want to feel needed by your raid group. Maybe it’s because various patches and changes over the life of the game have just changed how it played.

Players I know who have switched mains for raiding or PvP seem to go through certain stages of anguish over this. Every time someone drops a pure DPS to tank or heal, it’s always emotionally complicated. <…> Sometimes it works out well – the new class is a better fit than the old one – but even then there are questions of discarded mains, of emotional attachments which need to be resolved. Rerolling is a tough step to take.

Or maybe your class took some nerfs and another class now performs that role better. It shouldn’t matter as long as yours is still good enough but other players will tend to ram it home to you all the time that the blood death knight is a zillion times better of a tank than your warrior (example picked at random) and how much easier things are when the DK can make raids. And before you know it, you feel unwanted and wish DKs would get nerfed into the ground just so that people would appreciate your efforts more.

I honestly think that for a lot of players, this is their first personal experience of discrimination. People judge you on external attributes that you can’t easily change, such as your character’s class. And it’s not fair because it isn’t your fault you weren’t prescient enough to roll the current overpowered class; you are just as good as those stupid DKs with their overpowered abilities, and why can’t anyone appreciate the great stuff that you can do, even if someone half asleep could do it better on their paladin and with fewer key presses too.

Cynwise is wondering why allowing characters to re-class is such a bugbear for MMOs. I’d say that role/class being fixed is a staple of RPGs because it stops everyone from rolling a tankmage and keeps some diversity of flavour in the game. But the fact is, players often have an emotional link with their main character. If that link weakens, the player feels less of a connection to that character or maybe loses the will to play it altogether, then their link to the game is disrupted.

There are other occurrences that can disrupt a player’s link to a MMO. Having your guild (or raid group) implode or friends leave is one of them. Another is having new content arrive that you feel forced to do for progression, but hate (ie. if a game that had been mostly PvE now ‘forces’ players to PvP for their upgrades). Another might be having the payment model change. Another might be burnout, which typically happens over a period of time, but there might be a single disruptive event that gets a player to realise they are burned out.

Any of these disruptive happenings offer the player a chance to change how they play the game: find a new guild, roll a new alt, learn how to enjoy a different playing style. Or they might just decide to leave and try their luck in a different game.  Because changing how you play may involve a lot of effort and energy – joining a new guild and getting to know a new crowd for example can require a lot of emotional energy, especially if you are naturally quite introvert.

One of the comments on Tobold’s post yesterday rang true with me.

MMO players have a career. They get into it, they play for a few years, burnout, spend another couple of years looking for a new MMO that will do it for them again, and then they wander off and play other games. Whether this is because of the demands of life, family, and career, or they no longer respond to the endorphin release of new gears and levels depends on the guy. But the number of people who are willing and able to play these things for decades is very small.

Disruptive events are likely to move a player along this career trajectory because they encourage change. When do you start looking for a new MMO? When something has disrupted your connection to your last one, perhaps. This is why nerfs are more dangerous to a MMO community than buffs, people don’t enjoy having their characters nerfed even if it was regarded inevitable.

When I think of issues that have prompted me to switch games or stop playing a game, I come back to guild/raid issues and burnout, and changes in game philosophy via patches, but also to classes simply not being what they were when I made my original choice.

What changes in MMOs have you found most disruptive? And did you decide to change or quit?

[WoW] How has class popularity changed since Jan 2010?

Zardoz recently refreshed his datamining reports, and I thought this was a good opportunity to look at how class distribution is changing in WoW.

In January 2010, I wrote a post using his data to look at class popularity. But how have things changed since then?

Class Rank
Aug 2010
Class as % of level 80 chars
Aug 2010
Class Rank Jan 2010 Class as % of level 80 chars
Jan 2010
% change in pop since Jan
Paladin (1) 15.1 1 15.4 -0.3
Death Knight (2) 12.8 2 13.8 -1.0
Druid (3) 11.6 3 11.4 0.2
Priest (4) 10.1 4 9.9 0.2
Mage (5) 9.1 6 8.8 0.3
Warrior (6) 9.0 5 9.8 -0.8
Shaman (7) 8.9 7 8.4 0.5
Hunter (8) 8.3 8 8.2 0.1
Warlock (9) 7.6 10 7.4 0.2
Rogue (10) 7.5 9 7.4 0.1

You can see clearly here that balancing has nudged towards the desired effect. The two most popular classes as of January have both dropped in relative popularity, and the two least popular classes have both gained in popularity over the last 8 months.

The biggest changes are the drop in numbers of Death Knights and Warriors relative to the rest. People just aren’t rolling new Death Knights and Warriors any more, or at least not as much as other classes. Maybe the DK restriction of only one per server has started to kick in, as people roll multiples of their favourite toons?

It’s possible, but my gut feeling is that these numbers represent people’s initial reaction to announced Cataclysm class changes. They are rushing to level prepare alts who can be ready when the expansion hits. Death Knights face one of the biggest changes because instead of having three different and viable play styles for both tanking and dps, they will have one tank spec and two dps spec lines. Suddenly the golden child class doesn’t seem so very different from the rest. I’m at a loss to explain the warrior numbers too, the class has been in pretty good shape recently from my perspective.

Maybe it’s a tanking issue. Anyone who wants a tank already has one, new players are put off by the aggression of the player base. (Wishing I’d recorded the spec popularity back in January also to compare.)

Classes which saw the biggest bump in popularity as alts were shamans and mages. (Note that hunters are very close to mages in popularity on PvE servers, I mention that in more detail below.) Maybe people also really like the changes they’re getting in Cataclysm (most notably, a version of heroism/ bloodlust). I’m sure this is also a factor with shamans, who look to be getting some nice boosts in the new expansion.

The other reason that people level alts towards the end of an expansion is to fill existing holes in their raid group. It gets harder to recruit because of players burning out, so rushing an alt up as a replacement makes more sense. That could explain why the tank classes saw a relative drop in numbers (hard to gauge with druids because of the numerous specs), they’re less likely to be the spots that needed to be filled.

Zardoz also splits out the percentage distribution on PvP realms as well as PvE realms. The numbers in the table above are combined, looking at the separate numbers does give some more insight.

Hunters are massively more popular on PvE realms (8.9%) than on PvP ones (7.5%) which has skewed the combined  numbers here, bringing them much closer to mages on PvE servers.

Conversely, rogues are more popular on PvP realms (8.4%) than PvE (6.7%).

Warlocks however are identical on both. They’re just less popular in general :)

When expectations change

Tobold wrote about a week ago about players and their sense of entitlement. Do players have a right to feel entitled to easy levelling, easy loot, and accessible raiding, or is it just as much a sense of entitlement if the hardcore feel entitled to always be a quantum leap ahead of the rest?

The word entitlement implies a sense of  rights. For example,  I have statutory rights as an employee, as a consumer, and as a British citizen. Those rights are enshrined in (local) law. So as a consumer, I’m entitled to buy items that are fit for purpose – and if they aren’t, I can go argue my case in court and the state will back me up if I’m right.

In a computer game, we don’t  have rights in the same sense.  No one is entitled to anything beyond their standard consumer rights when they buy a game. What we do have, however, is a sense of expectation. If I buy a book and I don’t like it, my consumer rights aren’t breached because the book being fit for purpose doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be a cult classic. It just means that it has pages with words/ pictures on them and can be read (note: insert legal definition of book here if you are feeling pedantic). If the book radically fails to  fit the description on the jacket then maybe, just maybe, I have a case. But if my expectations are shattered then I won’t buy another book by the same author (unless they are shattered in a good way.)

But what expectation do players have from MMOs? The box and advertising will tell you a lot about what it is possible to do in the game, but cannot guarantee that you will be able to do those things, because many of them require the cooperation of other players. That’s  the one thing that no one can sell you, unless the box specifically states, “bring some friends.”

So maybe you go in, sold on the idea that you can create a character of your own to explore and adventure in the virtual world, and meet other people. Those are reasonable expectations. Everyone will be able to do that. But what then? Will the game allow you to finish all of its content, or will some be locked to specific groups of people or need commitments of time or money? If you see someone wearing a cool outfit, will your character also be able to get one? If you read about something fun that another player did, will you be able to do that also?

In a single player game, the answer may well be ‘yes,’ depending on the difficulty and time required. In an MMO, it may also be ‘yes,’ depending on the difficulty, time required, and other players required. But the ‘other players may be required’ is part and parcel of having massive games.

Still, where do the expectations come from of:

  1. Hardcore raiders will become the nobility of the game?
  2. All players will be able to do everything?

The answer is, those expectations come from within the game itself. No one went into their first MMO with any assumptions beyond, “Cool! I can create a character and go explore this virtual world with other people in it.” The assumption that people who put more work into their virtual characters will become more powerful in the virtual world is just a case of people mirroring real world assumptions – that’s not really surprising in itself, but it is the game play that determines what forms of  ‘virtual work’ are most valuable in the game. In a strongly social game, that would mean time and effort spent in politicking and socialising. In a WoW-type MMO it could mean hardcore raiding, or beating the economy.

Expectations can change, or be changed. In Warcraft, each patch has changed the expectations of the player base for the future of the game. If casual players feel more entitled to raids, loot, and achievements, that’s because Blizzard has indicated that this is how the game is now played. It isn’t a sense of entitlement that came out of nowhere. Back in the days of Vanilla WoW there were complaints about raid inaccessibility, but I don’t recall anyone ever expecting that the majority of the player base should or could raid. Similarly, if the hardcore players feel a sense of entitlement, that didn’t come out of nowhere either. The first few years of the game indicated that Blizzard intended a class based playerbase with hardcore at the top. They put dedicated hours into the game on that understanding. Both parties have good reasons for their expectations, but they cannot both be met at the same time.

The developers decide what players are or aren’t entitled to. So when a game changes to the extent that Warcraft has, it isn’t surprising that everyone is on edge. No one knows what their assumptions should be any more. People cling to the last patch as either an aberration that will be fixed in the future, or the shape of things to come. And so we pick apart the discarded musings of the blue posters (official Blizzard posters) as if we could divine the future from their entrails. Our rights in the game may depend upon it.