Does easier content make for friendlier MMO communities?

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A pretty WoW screenshot, being able to fly does give you a good choice for perspectives

It has become a truism in MMOs that behaviour in random pick up groups can be really atrocious. There will be elitist jerks urging everyone to gogogo, pulling extra packs of trash mobs themselves if they think the group isn’t moving fast enough, there will be people acting like idiots purely to annoy the rest of the group, there will be insults, aggression, rage quits,  intolerance towards newbies. It’s like a war out there, put on your kneepads and body armour before venturing into LFG!

It’s also widely held that smaller, more coherent communities tend to be nicer to each other. I’m not so sure this is always true, but guild groups certainly tend to be nicer and more successful because of being willing to work together.

And yet, while I’ve been running at least one heroic a day in WoW, and LFR raids every week too, I just haven’t seen much of the horrible behaviour that gives PUGs such a bad name. The worst I’ve really seen is people leaving the group mid-instance, possibly even mid-pull (which is bad behaviour, yes), and a bit of frustration on raid/party chat which is as often countered by people telling the speaker to chill. It isn’t just that I’m on a more chilled out RP server because LFG/LFR is cross server. Although the world boss groups (Sha of Anger et al) on my server have tended to be particularly chilled out and willing to welcome any warm body who is able to help, even when people are annoyed at being beaten to the pull by Alliance – which happens reasonably often because they outnumber us on the server.

So while it’s not possible to change human nature, I think PUGs have become nicer in MoP than they were in Cataclysm. While this isn’t great for having funny ‘it came from the PUG’ stories to relate in blog posts, it probably does mean that the player base in general is having more fun (where being in aggressive LFGs counts as less fun). The only factors I can put this down to are:

  • People who left because they didn’t like pandas were some of the really annoying folks so the game is nicer without them (I don’t really see why this would be the case but you never know)
  • The instances and LFR are generally easier in MoP and less dependent on every individual performing well. Easier content means that there’s less stress on a group. If people just settle down, chances are they’ll get through it in reasonable time.
  • Less odd trash pulls which need specific tactics (Shado-Pan excepted). If you are looking up instance tactics, they tend to focus on boss fights so making these the main content in instances means there is less for new players to learn.
  • The more hardcore players are still motivated to do regular LFG/ LFR for the tokens, but less gated by inexperienced/ bad players. ie. If you are a decent dps player, chances are you can pull a group through a heroic even if the other two dps get themselves locked out of fights, die in the fires, etc.

I also think Blizzard has done a good job of making the boss fights generally fun, even though the group difficulty is a bit lower. There’s lots of movement, add switching, things to dodge, and all the other stuff that generally switches games up from pure tank and spank fights.

But really, random groups need easier content to make up for the fact that they won’t have as much experience at working together, are less likely to communicate, and are likely to contain players of widely differing skill and experience levels. We’ve seen this in the GW2 dynamic events also – they’re easy, and there’s no group size limits, so any warm body is welcome. I am glad Blizzard have twigged this, because their group content is one of the strong points of WoW and making PUGs more fun for everyone (newbies and hardcore alike) is a huge win for the game.

Bashiok actually says as much on the official forums:

While you may go in with a ((random)) group and all learn something, that a specific mob needs to be CC’d, or a certain boss behavior to avoid a wipe, those lessons are more than likely out the window with the next group you’re matched with ((…)) and most people don’t want to spend every run waiting for everyone else to learn all those same lessons. That can just be a frustrating experience. So instead of trying to force a group of strangers to be so heavily coordinated (maybe even having to jump into voice chat) just to complete the first steps of progression, we reduce the complexity to a point where the random groups that are being put together can most of the time be successful without needing to be hyper-organized or educated on each pull. Instead, that organization is far more important for the organized content where random people aren’t matched together: normal and Heroic raids.

Do you think the WoW community has become more pleasant in PUGs in this expansion?

Bring on the clones: Sometimes all you want is a new setting with same core mechanics

If anyone has played tabletop RPGs, you’ll be familiar with the idea of using the same core mechanics for multiple different campaigns.

Dungeons and Dragons in particular is well known for the wildly different settings (including PlanescapeDragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and loads of others) and that’s before you even start on individual GM’s homegrown settings. These are all, incidentally, settings with radically different geography, histories, races, and can vary widely in genre and theme. (eg. Ravenloft is a gothic horror setting, Spelljammer is about space pirates on flying magical ships.)But they are all based on the same core rules.

Part of the appeal of an expansion or DLC to an existing computer game is having an expanded setting with the same core mechanics. Probably even the same core player character.

Part of the appeal of playing a game in the same genre as an existing one is having a new setting with similar core mechanics, but with a different player character. And maybe enough tweaks to add a learning curve. OK, this doesn’t explain why Blizzard like to tweak their mechanics for each expansion, but you can assume the gameplay experience will be familiar enough to not put people off.

So I never quite understand why people complain about ‘WoW Clones’. Do players who like FPS complain about CoD clones (or whatever the ur-game is for FPS)? By all means complain if the game isn’t fun, or the balance is off. But if you’re bored of the core mechanic, don’t know what you want, or just feel burned out in general, then play something else. It is entirely possible for a game to use typical MMO core mechanics (and we probably wouldn’t even be able to agree what those were) and still provide a breath of fresh air in other respects, to people who don’t actively hate that gameplay.

In some ways, I wish one of the big MMO companies would find a way to open source their mechanics and let other developers work on a wide range of different expansions, so that players could take their favourite character into multiple different games. Just like the D&D campaigns.

[LOTRO] Expansion pricing, and when points get devalued

Turbine had previously announced the pre-release package for Rise of Isengard, which costs $30 for the expansion zones (including raid and dungeons), some pretty cosmetic gear/ mounts, and 25% xp bonus for all characters on your account. Sounds like a reasonable deal for an expansion, and the xp bonus is a nice perk for people with lots of alts.

Yesterday they also released the details for the expansion pricing if you prefer to buy it with Turbine points, and the forums went wild. The price is points is significantly higher than the price if you buy the pre-order in cash. And not only is the price for the expansion higher, you have to pay extra in points for the raid and again for the dungeons.

Note: One of the vaunted advantages of F2P was only having to pay for the content that you wanted. This advantage does not feel so exciting when it’s a) cheaper to pay cash for the entire bundle including the part you didn’t want and b) the price of the basic content has risen so high that you’re paying more for the part you do want anyway.

Now, it obviously makes sense from Turbine’s point of view to devalue points in favour of cash whenever they get the chance. This being the case, anyone who stocked up on turbine points when they were on special deal with the aim of using them to buy the expansion has lost out here. Player vs Developer discusses the expansion pricing in more detail. As PvD comments, even at the best deal possible, this would still be more expensive than paying cash for the preorder.

(Although if you aren’t in a hurry for the content, it’s bound to be on sale in a few months time.)

But the point cost isn’t for people like you, it’s for people like me

Now to get this into perspective, you have to consider players like me. I have a lifetime subscription, but I actually play LOTRO in fits and starts, a few months here and then a few months there. I very very rarely spend Turbine points but my account accrues them at 500p per month.

I have about 7500 turbine points on my account. Buying the expansion with points is a no brainer for me, there’s nothing else I wanted to spend the points on, I don’t have to buy the raid if I don’t plan to raid (which I don’t) and it doesn’t matter to me how much those points would have cost in real money because I didn’t pay for them. I could imagine that my lifetime sub covers the cost of this expansion – because it basically does.

Now I just have to decide if I want to pay the extra for the 25% xp bonus for my warden alt. I think I might not bother, actually. If it had been an account bonus I probably would have done it but the version you can buy with points is for one alt only.

So my advice with Turbine and Points is this:

  • Don’t buy any content before you need it unless there is a particularly good sale on. The longer you wait, the more chance of it coming up in a sale.
  • Don’t buy points unless there’s something you really want to spend points on, regardless of how good the sale is. Turbine have shown here that if they really want people to spend cash, they can always make that more appealing.
  • If something has been in a sale once, it’ll be in a sale again.
On another note, I do wonder how pricing the raid separately is going to affect raiding in Isengard. I don’t think many casual raiders will be quick to plonk down the extra points for the raid instance unless they are very keen.

Rumours of a Pandaren Based WoW Expansion (are greatly exaggerated)

Rumours sprang up earlier that the next WoW expansion will be centred on the fluffy race of panda people and their mysterious homeland (which cunningly doesn’t seem to fit on regular maps of Azeroth so that’s some clever island hiding right there.) This was based in Blizzard having taken out a trademark for the name, “Mists of Pandaria.”

Far be it from me to doubt Boub’s research but I won’t be surprised if this turns out to be either a hoax or Blizzard are moving away from the large 2-yearly expansion model. Two reasons for this:

  1. Pandaren are pretty much a joke race. That’s not a showstopper in itself, lore can be written. But there doesn’t seem enough meat there to justify a whole expansion even if they throw in an entire east asian fantasy themed continent.
  2. WoW is going to face some stiff competition in the AAA MMO field over the next year, with SWTOR, GW2, Diablo 3 (we might as well call it a quasi-MMO now), and smaller MMOs like Prime, not to mention whatever Blizzard has up its sleeve with Titan. Wrath and Cataclysm were both fairly epic; are they really going to go with the fluffy pandas for their next outing?

On the front loaded nature of expansions

I have a post half written with some advice on getting to be a raid tank in Cataclysm. It’s based on my experiences with  raid tanking in Wrath, with some guesses about how the next expansion might differ. And while drafting it out, I learned a few things about how I feel about expansions.

First comer advantage

One assumption that flew out at me was the being there right at the beginning of the expansion. It’s much easier to get involved if you are at max level and ready to raid when most of the raid groups are still forming and still recruiting.

At the start of an expansion, the social structures are likely to be in flux. People are making plans right now, but even the best of plans can crumble when hit by reality. People will change their minds, they’ll decide they prefer a different alt or spec to the one they were planning, they’ll get seduced into different raid groups by charismatic raid leaders. It takes awhile for that to all work itself out, and that’s the easiest time to get involved.

Aside from the social side of things being less fixed, at the beginning of an expansion you get to learn the content alongside everyone else. In the past players have been more tolerant of mistakes or learning wipes, less critical of gear levels, more willing to work together. So even though the content itself was relatively harder, it was easier to learn through experience.

Of course, in the past we didn’t also have the random dungeon finder. It will be very interesting to see how that affects instance runs at the start of Cataclysm. I predict that again there will be an early advantage – the type of player who levels quickly (quickly here just means within the first month or so) are the keener ones who may also be the more hardcore. Or it may be that people will stick to guild runs and LFG will be a lonely place for awhile.

Front loaded content

Part of the issue is that an expansion contains a large amount of new content in a single push. All the new zones and levelling content as well as multiple 5 man instances leads to a lot of learning. First comers will have plenty of time to do this before the first content patch. Players who level later can feel pushed through the initial expansion content so that they can get to the current endgame. They’ll never get the content pace perfect. Hardcore players will always push through quickly and get bored. Later players will always feel either pushed into the endgame too quickly or else frustrated because the endgame is so inaccessible.

But for a brief shining moment at the beginning of a new expansion, the endgame is reset and everyone is on the same level. Lots of people want to buy crafted gear again. Levelling zones are busy and there is plenty of interest in group quests. People are chattier. It won’t last for long, maybe a few months, but once the moment is gone, it’s gone until the next expansion.

I have wondered before if there’s a way to stretch out this honeymoon period. But all I could think was to drip feed new players into the content a bunch at a time, which won’t make anyone happy. Or release smaller expansions more frequently, which would frustrate endgame players who prefer to relax into an endgame mode rather than having to relearn everything once a year.

Ultimately the only long term solution is more horizontal content, rather than more vertical, which would reduce the effect that progression in one area of the game would have in the rest. And in the very longterm? Maybe progression itself is one of the sacred cows that will have to be sacrificed ..

How much do we really want a class to change between expansions?

So Blizzard have started to dribble out some more talent tree information for druids, rogues, priests and shamans. But I don’t really feel curious to know more about warriors. I’m fine if they don’t change much, because I like mine the way she plays right now. All I really want is for Blizzard to design encounters that play to my class strengths :)

And this is the real sticking point with class redesigns. If a gameplay feature is changed too much, then people who like it right now might find that they can’t get to grips with their favourite class any more in future. I think the ones which look set to change the most in Warcraft are Holy Paladins, and Death Knights in general (just because some spec/role combinations are disappearing).

Have you ever played a class which stopped being fun after a redesign?

New expansion for City of Heroes

Out with the old, in with the new! Paragon have been emailing around fliers about their next expansion: City of Heroes going Rogue. There’s a cool trailer on the site too.

What can I say? This old article from Massively last year is looking prophetic.

One of the big attractions is going to be the ability to switch sides. Heroes can become villains. Villains can become heroes. They aren’t the first MMO to do this (EQ2 has had side switching since forever)  but that doesn’t mean it isn’t pretty exciting, especially since the hero and villain powersets can be quite different.

New characters will start as neutrals, picking a starting side at the end of the tutorial instance. And various actions you can take in the game will edge you closer to the good or evil side of thing. I like this -  if any genre ever cried out for a basic good vs evil alignment mechanic, superheroes are it.

Other items from the survey last year and not yet announced for the expansion (but sounding plausible  are):

  • Characters that do not wish to change sides are rewarded by becoming exemplary heroes or villains, and earning rewards not available any other way
  • Character Creator 2.0 includes Powers Customization, allowing players to customize not only the character, but also the actual look of its powers
  • New Spy Archetype, Power Sets & Costume
  • Universal Enhancement Slots – at level 50, these enhance powers to the character, essentially bringing them to a hypothetical “Level 60″ once they have earned all ten slots

Unsurprisingly there’s a long thread on the subject on the COH boards. There’s no timeframe yet but this could be a good year for superhero MMO fans.

If this is CoH’s answer to Champions Online then all I can say is … game on!