Random LFG in WoW: Day 1

In which well geared groups are happy to help a new 80 out, and everyone still hates the Oculus

I had set this afternoon aside to try out some of the new content – yes, our patching here in the EU was very smooth as I predicted yesterday and instances were up, but yet to see what things are like tonight.

I tried a few runs on my newly level 80 Death Knight (I think it was Stabs who asked why I was bothering with an alt – the answer is a) because I want to and b) I wanted to redo the Icecrown quests again before 3.3 came out to refresh my memory.)

Just for the record, my DK does about 2k dps at the moment. Which I know is plenty for the regular heroics. Still, for the sake of karma, I plan to run at least one a day on Spinks and let new 80s come along.

1. Heroic Utgarde Pinnacle. Group ran silently apart from a few comments in what might have been Swedish. They didn’t seem to care that I died on a couple of the bosses in their hurry to speed clear the place. I ran along behind and picked up the loot.

2. Heroic Violet Hold. I zoned in just as they pulled the first boss. I also zoned in by the instance entrance which is behind the lockin. If you talk to the NPC there, she’ll port you into the actual instance but not while a fight is going on. So I apologised to the group for standing there like a lemon while they got me a badge. After the boss died, I was able to join them for the rest – they were a friendly bunch.

3. Heroic Oculus. As soon as we zoned in, one person said ‘fuck’ and two more left the group. I took the 15 mins deserter buff rather than waiting around in the instance.

4. Heroic Halls of Lightning. I zoned in, the rest of the group laughed at my blue and green gear (ie. lol DK.) I countered with the witty and well thought out argument, “Don’t be thick, you don’t need 5k dps to do heroics.” This apparently convinced them because after that we went on and cleared it effortlessly. I suspect the enchanter in the group was on a silent protest because although the disenchant option came up, he kept pressing greed and seemed to get all the loot. I actually think from earlier instances that greed and disenchant have exactly the same priority and he was just lucky. However, the rest of the group got annoyed and booted him (I didn’t vote! I don’t like booting people!) so we had to 4 man the last two bosses. It didn’t stop us getting some speed achievement so clearly I wasn’t dragging them down too much.

5. Heroic Halls of Stone. Quiet, friendly group who really just wanted to do the encounter with Brann and then get the last boss so everyone could get the instance counted on the LFG tool and then get out. At my stage of gearing, I’d have appreciated the extra badges and drops but since I think it’s a fairly dull instance anyway, I could see where they were coming from.

6. Got onto Spinks and queued up to tank a random. Sod’s law said it was Oculus so we zoomed through quickly and got the Make it Count achievement for people. People seemed friendly enough, knew what to do, and were (relatively) happy to be there.

So far, my first impressions have been very good.

A day in the life of cross-server PUGs

twilight_zone-rod-serling <<twilight zone music>>

Imagine that you have had a flash forward in time, to an alternate future. In this future, Blizzard’s planned LFG changes have gone live. How will your game change?

You level up through a series of levelling zones, queuing for level appropriate instances as you go. You’ll likely not find one immediately you start to look but hopefully it won’t take too long, and when your instance comes up you will immediately get ported there with your 4 new friends who could be from any server in your battlegroup. You may never find out where the instance entrance actually is in the gameworld, if it even has one. You don’t need to talk to the other people in your group if you don’t want to – you won’t ever meet them again.

When you reach max level you can sit in the expansion-appropriate city for the rest of your endgame. Every day you can log in, queue up for the random dungeon daily quest and the random daily battleground and mess around with the auction house while you wait for the group to fill. Again, you’ll be ported directly to the instance or battleground when the group is ready. You can even queue for the random weekly raid instance if you have a bit more time and feel like a change of pace – in patch 3.3 the random raid group will only work for people on your server but surely if it is successful then it will also be expanded to the battlegroup.

If anyone in your random group turns out to be a jerk or a useless twat then the other four can vote to kick them out.

Maybe in each patch Blizzard will add in a new area with some daily quests if you feel like a breath of virtual fresh air. And if you’d rather do things old style and group with people on your server, there will be a LFG global channel (in cities) where you can compare achievements and put together those 10-man class PUGs.

My current thoughts in summary: A lot of people will benefit from this (people who don’t like feeling forced to be part of a community will be cheering). The game will be improved for many. And it could be so fundamentally game changing to the community that I don’t know where it will lead. We’ll have to wait and try it out and see. So my thoughts right now are phrased as questions.

Is this virtual heaven?

For some people, this will be a dream come true. While the LFG can never be greater than the sum of its parts (ie. you’ll still have the same people in the pool), it could benefit anyone who:

  • Likes PUGs and would like a bigger group of people to PUG with.
  • Don’t want to be part of a community but still want to do group activities
  • Don’t like travelling outside your city of choice, either because you think it’s a waste of time or just don’t like it
  • Wants to run lower level instances but finds that there aren’t enough people on their server — but there might be enough people on the battlegroup

So really, most people could benefit, depending on how good the group matching tool is.

The new system will now work to match at least one experienced player for the assigned dungeon with less experienced players in the group.

This quote in particular makes me nervous (call me harsh but boosting other people’s undergeared alts through heroics isn’t my idea of a fun time, friends excepted), but at the end of the day you’ll still be able to arrange groups old-style using the LFG channel if you want to know in advance who you will be with.

Those of us on servers who have really good PUG communities right now will lose out, though. I’d comfortably say that 9/10 of my PUGs are really pleasant experiences at the moment. Argent Dawn is a great place to run a PUG. That can basically only get worse if we introduce more battlegroups into the mix. But I suppose that’s what happens when you even people out – a lot of other players will benefit from having well behaved AD players in their groups now.

Or is it the end of the virtual world and the server community?

Server communities have the same issue as social players in general. They work because some people love them and work very hard to pull them together, and lots of other people don’t care but will participate if the work is done for them and the rewards are there. Together, the people who do care and the people who aren’t bothered but will go along with it make up the server community.

So what happens if all the people who aren’t bothered are given an easier way to get to the group content that they want? (Remember, they don’t hate the server community, they just don’t care either way.) But server communities have been valuable for people. By running server-based PUGs, new players can mix with existing ones. It has been one of the standard ways that people find guilds (or guilds find people).

Do most players even care that their game takes place in a virtual world or would they really rather sit in Dalaran and bitch on the trade channel until their next instance or battleground or raid comes up?

The sad thing about the players who say that they don’t care is that they won’t find out whether or not they really do until it is too late. Maybe the most hardcore gamist won’t miss seeing sunrises over the Grizzly Hills, or watching protodrakes swoop down and carry off woolly rhinos in the Storm Peaks (they totally do this, btw). Maybe they don’t enjoy the feeling of soaring between mountain peaks or experiencing the virtual world around them. Maybe they don’t have an attachment to the little starting village where their character first learned how to bind and use a mailbox.

But the experience would be less for a lot of other people without those things.

And what does it mean to be in a guild?

For a lot of people, a guild is their passport to group activities in game. As well as an in-game community, the guild provides a pool of people with whom to run instances. The guild may also have organised activities such as PvP or raiding.

But what if you could do all those things without a guild? What does the guild mean to people then?

And again, back to the social conundrum. The people who enjoy being in a guild will still guild up. But the people who didn’t care and were only tolerating the guild in order to get to the content may find it easier not to bother.

If the random raid PUG really takes off on a server, a lot of raid guilds will find it increasingly difficult to recruit. Why would you sign up to a guild with a fixed raid schedule when you could just log on when you had some free time and find a raid then? Maybe if you are really committed to the hard modes it would still be necessary (until Blizzard include a hard mode looking for raid interface with extra checks).

Ultimately, this really is a good thing. People shouldn’t feel forced to join guilds and work at their schedules just to get to the group content. They should join guilds because they want the community and feel of being in a guild. The game will be much more pleasant for everyone if the people who prefer not to be part of a community have the option to opt out.

Some things never change

One thing is for sure though: no matter how many servers are thrown into the mix, there will still never be enough tanks or healers to go around. But at least the random dungeon won’t have to be the Oculus.

I’m planning to keep a diary of my PUGs after this feature goes live, to see how it goes. I’ll run at least one random dungeon a day. So if nothing else, you’ll be able to see how I cope with the unwashed PvP-server masses … and vice versa.

Critical Mass for an MMO and Cross Server PUGs

How many people do you need to have online at the same time in a MMO? Up until now, this has been determined mostly through technical requirements (how many people can one server support?). But depending on design, some MMOs need more people online at the same time than others otherwise they just don’t work.

If you look at WoW with it’s plethora of solo content, popular 5 man instances, and battlegrounds that you can jump into without being in a pre-made group, it’s very clear that server population can get quite low and people will still be able to play. So although your chances of being able to run a 5 man instance of your choice in the middle of the night are lower than at primetime, you still only need 4 other people to do it. The only big sticking point is raiding, and battlegrounds themselves – and just as cross-server battlegrounds eased the need for one server alone to provide all participants, it will probably ease the need for single server raid PUGs too.

Warhammer, by comparison, seemed from the outset to be a game that was designed for a truly massive population. Open world PvP split across lots of different zones and different level bands needed quite a lot of players on the same server to all be interested at the same time if fights were to be consistently available (in practice, there were so many different zones that player warbands could comfortably avoid combat while taking forts). Public quests, while fun, needed to have enough people in the same zone interested in the same quest to get the group together. It was never the case (except maybe in the very early days) that you could just wander around and happen on a group in the public quest you wanted to do.

So I always wondered if at any point the devs had sat down and tried to figure out their critical mass. ie. how many players do we need per server for there to be a reasonable chance that a player can find a public quest/ scenario/ open world pvp/ instance to do at prime time/ off peak daytime/ night? I’m sure they didn’t.

Note: In game economies are a different issue. They do require a certain number of active players, but those players don’t all need to be online at the same time.

Raising the Critical Mass

So there are some design decisions that will raise the critical mass of a game and spread the existing player base:

  1. Non scaling content that needs large numbers of people (ie. raids of fixed size, battlegrounds of fixed size)
  2. Larger group size.
  3. Lots of group content spread all across the level range
  4. Lots of levels, and lots of content that is level specific (ie. difficult to group with people outside your current level range)
  5. Wide choice of group content (eg. lots and lots of public quests)
  6. Very large world with long travel times (ie. once you have found people, how difficult is it to get the group together)
  7. Highly tuned content. (ie. people reluctant to run it with people they don’t know or in PUGs.)

So in general, the more choices people have about what group content to do, the more people you need to have online to raise the chances that other people will also want to do it.

Lowering the Critical Mass

Likewise, other design decisions will lower the critical mass of a game, and funnel existing players together:

  1. Have people from all timezones on the same servers (means people who play offpeak from one timezone are more likely to find other players)
  2. Good LFG channel and functionality
  3. Robust PUG scene. (ie. an atmosphere where people feel encouraged to join random groups)
  4. Announcements when public quests become active (ie. to funnel people towards them)
  5. Reward systems that funnel people towards specific group content (ie. daily dungeon rewards)
  6. Lots of solo or small group content
  7. Scaled encounters. Lots to do for different group sizes.

Is cross-server PUGs the answer?

Just from looking at those lists it’s easy to see that WoW is specifically designed to work fine with a lower player population. This seems ironic given how much more popular it is than other MMOs, but I do think it is one reason for the game’s massive success. It really is much easier to log in and just play.

On the other hand, the high critical mass design statements lead to a wider, deeper, larger game. I would rather PLAY that game, but … as soon as the critical mass dips too far down, you lose many of the advantages. More and more I believe that just as Wolfshead suggested, better scaling is the answer.

Is it possible to have the best of both worlds? It might be that in WoW, the cross-server PvE PUGs that are coming next patch will be more game changing than anyone yet guesses. Surely it will be easier to find groups for those lower level instances when you have several servers contributing to the player pool. And if PUGs for raids are implemented across server also, who knows where it could end?

Not only that, but the game retains the current server size so people who like their current server communities won’t feel swamped as they move around the game world. They’ll just have access to a much larger group of players to instance with.