Thought for the Day: What happens when people get bored of raiding?

I think that raiding as a preferred playing style in MMOs  is on a long downwards spiral. There’s really no trend to show that people are dying to spend more time in tight knit raid guilds with regular weekly raid nights, far from it, the trends are towards more solo and casual play.

And although more people than ever before have been able to raid in Wrath, that just means that people who hadn’t seen raids before might now be able to decide, “Well, that was OK but never again.” Especially if opportunities for PUG raids or casual raiders are reduced in the new expansion, which is likely for the first few months at least. (10 man raids are more sensitive to people being able to commit to regular weekly raids, not less because they’re likely to have fewer people ‘on the bench’.)

Rohan commented recently that he sees issues with the new rated battlegrounds too, and I think he’s right on the money with this one. I particularly like his categories of transient vs extended group content — eg. a PUG is a transient group which forms for a single session, and a raid group is an extended group which forms with the expectation of regular weekly/ daily assaults on extended raid content.

So what are the casual players to do if they aren’t able or willing to commit to something as long term as a regular raid group or battleground group? And how about people who are bored of raiding because they’re bored of the regularity of the whole thing, what can they do to break up the tedium?

I think that WoW, for better or worse, is tied to this form of endgame and will continue to cater to it until the last server is turned off (ie. possibly not in my lifetime!) but people tiring of raiding is an opportunity for some more agile developer to ask, again, what is an MMO really all about? Is it just PvP over territory again and again and again or raiding? Is it just adding more solo grinds? Or could it be something else?

Or perhaps people will just dip into more of the F2P games, play a bit until something else comes along, and endgame as such will be only for the ultra hardcore. (As opposed to just the hardcore as it is now.)

Transferable skills: Raiding in LOTRO

bg_lin1 Note: I am going to be discussing raiding as it is now on EU servers. We don’t yet have the latest F2P patch with the associated rules changes, new content, and so on. We don’t yet have a date for it either.

I now have enough radiance on my gear to be able to set foot into Barad Guldur (BG), which is the big Mirkwood raid instance. It is a change of pace from Moria with more animated suits of armour and fewer mushrooms; but there are still plenty of orcs. The end boss is (dah dah DAH) a Nazgul, and I’m not sure what happens if you kill it but if we find out I’ll let you know.

Me being there at all is only possible because of an infinitely patient raid group which is also in need of warm bodies. I have in fact given up trying to understand how raiding works in my kinship. They are all very nice, but I feel as though the newbie raid group threw radiance gear at me and now  don’t seem concerned whether I raid with them (I have always assumed previously that good raid etiquette was to raid with the guys who geared you). So I’m thrown in with the big boys and girls, into proper LOTRO progression raiding! They have all been remarkably nice about having a noob on board.

So how does LOTRO raiding compare with WoW raiding

Raiding in LOTRO reminds me a lot of raiding in the later raids of vanilla WoW. Obviously we don’t have 40 people, these are 12 man raids, but there are several similarities:

  • Trash mobs need some strategy. The pulls are carefully planned, tanks allocated to mobs, kill order required and use of raid marks and assists widely used.
  • Endurance boss fights. The LOTRO designers like longish boss fights so typically, once you have figured out what to do, your raid has to continue to do it flawlessly for several minutes.
  • There is plenty of movement and interaction in the actual boss fights. This is why I’m reminded of the end of AQ40 or parts of Naxx40, rather than earlier instances. The end boss of BG in particular is an extremely demanding fight which gets significantly harder if even one person dies.
  • Lots of abbreviations. This is probably standard for any MMO, but the LOTRO raids have abbreviations for the different instances, different bosses, different class abilities and talents (I fled to the net when someone gave me advice on how to spec so that I could decode it) and people will expect you to know them if they are mentioned mid fight.
  • The designers aren’t concerned about making fights that favour either melee or ranged to a great extent. But melee seem to get the shaft more often. Maybe this is inevitable in boss fight design but it does my head in to be standing and just watching an entire phase of a boss fight without being able to do anything.

The picture in the screenshot above is a trash fight in Barad Guldur. In this one, the raid pulls a group of wights. Each wight will focus on one player for a set amount of time (20s or so) and follow them around before switching to someone else. So the goal is for everyone to run away from their wights whilst killing everyone elses’.

If this sounds like mad fun, it is. And as an extra spice, imagine a UI which doesn’t announce who is being followed. You just have to keep an eye open.

Here’s some ways in which LOTRO raiding really struck me as different from WoW:

  • It takes a long time to recover between wipes. Between death debuffs (which can be removed) and time to run back into the instance, it’s not unusual to have only 3-4 tries at a boss in a session. Admittedly, we don’t raid long stretches of time, but it’s still very different from a WoW setup. This does however give people much more time to chat.
  • Repair bills hurt. LOTRO allows tokens from daily quests to buy potions and consumables but those repair bills can be fairly pricey. I’m not entirely sure how people make loads of cash in the game but I think I’d be farming a lot if I was raiding more heavily.
  • No boss mods. This is the big one, you have to actually pay attention to spell effects and boss shouts to figure out what’s going on. People are great about calling effects on voice chat but what you will not have are big wodges of text in the middle of the screen telling you exactly what to do.
  • Limited information. This is probably not such an issue now because BG has been live for at least a year, so there are plenty of websites where you can find out about the fights. But it is still a game in which each raid group has to figure things out for themselves. I do feel for the more hardcore EU raiders, because that will all have been done in the new raids by the time we get the content patch.

So does being a raider in one game transfer to the next?

The answer to this is yes and no. The only reason I’ve been able to transition so smoothly to the LOTRO raids is that I have been able to apply playing skills from other games. Once you learn what the fire looks like in the new game, you already know how to get out of it.

And when I say smoothly, I don’t mean that I’m some kind of amazing all-star. I just mean that I can follow basic instructions without wiping the raid. It’s only the lack of damage meters which mean no one can really compare performance easily.

The skills which do transfer best are situational awareness and being able to figure out what is going on in a fight by watching it (or particularly, what went wrong in a failed attempt). Those that need to be relearned are UI dependent – like watching for debuffs or checking the chat for boss shouts.

But one thing to bear in mind is that I’m playing a melee/utility class in LOTRO. I don’t have to wrestle with the default raid UI for healing, or the clever Warden/ Runekeeper mechanics. For those classes, this really is like raiding in hard mode.

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.

[LOTRO] When I’m 65 (and eyeing up the endgame)

outsidedolguldur

Fortress of Dol Guldur
I have been playing LOTRO in a very casual way, on and off, for the past few months. I have the great advantage of being able to call on Arbitrary for help when I get lost, need some in game advice, or want help with some quest or other, but otherwise I’ve been playing mostly solo.

I played the game for a few months when it came out, which was long enough to reach max level at the time and then get very ticked off at the (then) endgame zones of Angmar and the associated raids and instances. I picked up the Moria expansion a few months after it came out (and was discounted) and spent another month or two delving into Moria and trying out the new legendary weapons. Again, I enjoyed my time with the game, but drifted away when my attention was caught by something else.

And then the new skirmishes that came in with Mirkwood caught my eye, and I knew that I wanted to buy in again for a casual trip to Middle Earth. And so, for the first time in about 2 years, my burglar has actually hit max level again.

You can see from this that the way for a game to encourage me to resubscribe is to bring in some new and shiny functionality in a way that is easy to try as soon as I log in on my old character. New zones alone won’t do it, because I might not be the right level. So even Moria might not have grabbed me if my character at the time hadn’t been high enough level to go play there.

So … how’s Mirkwood?

dgpics I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with the elves in Lothlorien and Mirkwood. Moria’s epic but thoroughly confusing 3D architecture gives way to the more pastoral wooded vistas of the glowing golden wood and the murkier .. err.. murky one.

Mirkwood also benefits from being smaller in scope than both Shadows of Angmar and Moria – it has an easily comprehensible overarching plotline and stays mostly focussed on that. You are assisting the elves of Lothlorien in their push into Mirkwood and assault on the necromancer’s fortress of Dol Guldur. It will surprise no one (who is familiar with the source material) that this later turns out to be a feint intended to draw the Dark Lord’s gaze and armies away from a small NPC fellowship that is making its way towards Mordor.

So in many ways, Mirkwood is like Icecrown. You are part of an advancing army. You don’t know whether you will be able to overcome your foe. There is a grand fortification at the end of your journey. As you get closer to Dol Guldur, the quest hubs are fortified army camps and the quests will encourage you to capture more of the zone in piecemeal fashion.

The epic book questline that runs alongside the expansion is also a winner. Again the LOTRO team keep the questline focussed and interwoven with both the lore and the expansion storyline. You are working with a small team of elves on a very important prisoner exchange. In the course of the questline you get to know the individual elves quite well, and you will also get to strongly dislike the prisoner who you have to escort to the exchange point. I’m not used to feeling this kind of connection to NPCs in MMOs, so it’s a tribute to the LOTRO writing team that they can evoke this kind of emotional reaction.

The individual quests of the epic book are also astoundingly well executed. There’s a good mix of exploration, solo scripted questlines, killing, gathering, and the team also take the opportunity to showcase the highlight of Mirkwood, the skirmishes. Some of the epic book quests are implemented as skirmishes, so not only do you have the option to bring some friends along if you have any (or you can do them solo, since they scale), but you can also replay them afterwards.

Aside from giving the player a variety of activities, the quests are also very immersive. That means that if your character is lost and frustrated, the quest will make sure that you are too. If your character is nervously scouting ahead through a spider filled tunnel, expect to be nervously scouting through a spider filled tunnel (they will drop on your head unexpectedly, oh yes.)

One of the highlights for me was a quest where you are hunting for a lost dwarf in the swamps. You are warned to be careful of the boglights, but the quest is also set up so that the boglights will fake being images of the dwarf. You run up to them, the image disappears and reappears mockingly just around the next corner. The quest map and quest pointers play into the illusion and will direct you wrongly to the next illusion. It is only when you abandon those things and start searching on your own that you have any chance to actually find the missing dwarf.

You can decide for yourself if that sounds awesomely immersive or just annoying. (It’s actually both, but I can appreciate what they were doing with the storytelling.)

One of the other shining points of the storytelling is that after the main storyline is concluded, you can access several epilogues. That means as you travel back through the zone and hubs, some of the NPCs you had interacted with will have new epilogue quests for you. These give some closure and let you catch up with how events affected some of the individuals, whether it be taking news to faction leaders, helping some dwarves to honor their ancestors, or helping to bury dangerous artifacts deep in the tunnels of Moria where they can never be used again.

I would have loved this in Icecrown, where so many characters are left with dangling storylines. The epilogues make sure that no one’s story is skipped.

Another highlight of Mirkwood is the referrals back to LOTRO and The Hobbit.

combolotroquestI’m hoping this is going to be legible, but it shows how Mirkwood quests involve you making sure that Gollum isn’t caught by minions of The Enemy, and making use of the secret entrance by which Gandalf once sneaked into the necromancer’s lair to talk to Thorin’s father (which happened just before the beginning of The Hobbit.)

Pacing and Gearing and Reputations and Assumptions

I am always nervous about logging into an old game when I know my character is not well geared. What level of gear or preparation are they assuming for the new expansion? Will it be frustrating to play if you are a year (or more) out of practice and away from the cutting edge?

Turbine did a fantastic job with Mirkwood, at least for players like me. You can tell this because the only times I was frustrated with a quest, it turned out to be because I was doing it wrong. I was easily able to pick up new gear as I levelled by handing in reputation tokens or completing quests. Legendary weapons are also very accessible either via the auction house or reputation items – the key is that they mostly will not have optimal legacy abilities, but I found it easy to pick ones that were good enough for me.

The reputation in particular is very well done. You pick up reputation for the local elf faction for pretty much everything you do, and the reputation vendors are scattered through the zone in such a way that the vendors for your particular level of rep will turn up just as you achieved that rep level. That probably sounds confusing but in practice it’s very easy and natural to access reputation vendors and buy upgrades for your gear as you work through the questlines and quest hubs.

I capped out my reputation just about as I completed the book questline, which is a good example of how well the pacing is worked out. (I had done most of the normal quests too and a few of the dailies along the way, but never really pushed hard for reputation.)

Endgame or not Endgame

lonelands Lonelands, believe it or not!

Another place the LOTRO team score high is in introducing the player to the end game smoothly. As you run through the last of the book quests, you get stronger pointers towards the instances and raids. You even get a few tokens slung your way – not enough to really buy anything but enough to direct you to the token vendors to see what else you might be able to get in future.

The daily quests are introduced in the last few quest hubs, and worked into the overall theme of the zone (they involve patrols, killing orcs, and so on.)

But eventually you will have to make the choice: do you want to engage in endgame or not? Do you want to run the instances? Do you want to run the raids? Do you want to run the dailies? Or are you going to focus quietly on other things until the next expansion. It’s a decision all MMO players have to make at some point.

And the prospect of trying to learn new instances when everyone else is running them on hard mode and advertising for experienced players in chat channels is not really enticing to me. I don’t want to see them that badly. Plus  I have very little experience of grouping, and although I’m fairly clear on what my class is supposed to do, it’s quite likely that I’ve missed some key points. I think I could figure it out but I’m not sure if I really want to or not.

But I am not quite done with Mirkwood yet. Book 3 is coming out soon and with it duoing in skirmishes, which sounds intriguing to me since I do have a friend who plays. And also a new epic book quest, also intriguing to me given how much I enjoyed the current one. And meanwhile I can try to figure out how to make some gold in this game, catch up with all the Moria quests I skipped on my first run through, and maybe even buy a house to play with.

It’s amazing how free you feel once you decide that you don’t want to get tied into the endgame grind.