Social learning in MMOs: there are groups and there are GROUPS

I have been throwing myself into the gaping maw of the group finder tool this week on SWTOR and the overall experience has been great, I haven’t had a bad group yet. So why do I keep thinking about how strange it feels to play in a PUG put together by a sorting tool compared to a group of players who had  previous contact, even if it was just via chatting about the group in general chat? Most of all, the overwhelming sense of relief that I already know most of these instances and bosses from having learned them alongside my old guild, where we used to go in blind to see what happened, figure things out as we went along, and chatter on voice chat the whole time.

Frankly, a LFG environment can be a punishing place to learn content for the first time, especially if you are tanking or healing. Other players might turn out to be tolerant mentors, or might just be there for a speed run and guaranteed badges. They might be pleasantly civil, abhorrently rude, or merely silent. And always the looming threat of encountering one of those abusive hardcore player who will rage at anything or anyone which prevents them from collecting their entitlement of badges after a flawless 5 min speedrun.

It can also be a great place to learn content. More experienced players will know the faster routes through the instance, can tell you the smartest tactics, and can explain strategies quickly and simply. The more players you group with, the more you could potentially learn if everyone shares their best tactics on every run.

I can’t say I ever enjoyed trying to learn complex content (like raids) in random groups, however.

So how do we learn in groups?

The relationship of MMOs with groups has always been uncoordinated. These games were designed to include group challenges, but designers left it up to players as to how they would manage the tricks of group formation and learning. Still, we can imagine two main types of learning in groups.

1. The learning group. This would be a group of players that works together and learns content together. They’ll tend to stick with the same core set of members because that way they’ll be able to organise better, to learn each other’s strengths better, and put into use together what they’ve learned in previous runs. Group members will give frequent feedback to help the group improve. They may also offer social support (ie. if one player is nervous about a new raid or role, others will often encourage them: “Of course you can do it!”) Yup, this describes a raid group, or an organised guild. There are lots of theories about how groups form and work together to accomplish tasks, such as learning new instances or raids. But the main thing is that this type of group works together for more than one session and aims to learn as a group. A long standing group will have strategies to bring new members up to speed and include them in group activities, so that the group can keep learning and improving. Players will tend to feel some kind of commitment to the group.

You could also argue that the entire community of a game is a kind of learning group, with various members writing up strategies and tactics and providing video instruction of how to beat various bosses. But I don’t think there are really the kinds of feedback and support mechanisms in place to really underpin that. The resources are great, but they just underpin how difficult the task of learning in a group can be.

2. Learning in groups. You join a group, watch what they do and copy it. This is also known as social learning. Now, human beings will tend to learn all sorts of things in groups as well as boss strategies, such as how to behave towards other players. So if someone plays in LFG a lot and sees people being rude to the tanks or demanding speed runs, they’ll learn that is how you should play the game. While guilds and raids will also expect players to learn from being part of their group, they’ll tend to be more supportive about it than random players (even if they show this ‘support’ in ways like requiring high gear or dps scores before they’ll let you raid with them, that’s still setting a new player a learning target which could be useful.)

When WoW was released, I think the expectation of designers was that players would tend to commit to a guild and that the guild would learn the raids together. The notion that the more ambitious members would be guild hopping a lot wasn’t common at the time. Neither was the thought that a lot of people might not want (or be able) to commit to a guild, but would still be interested in endgame raids. On some servers, typically the RP ones, raid alliances formed so that people could have a raid schedule without leaving their smaller guilds. But the general idea of the raid guild as a learning organisation was built in from the start.

LFG is very much a newer and different kettle of fish. The groups are likely to have a mix of novice and experienced players, of people who know the content from people who don’t, characters who are overgeared and characters who are undergeared. So the kind of content that they want isn’t going to be the same as a dedicated learning group who will patiently wipe while they learn how best to handle a new boss.

I personally think the great flaw of Cataclysm was making the heroic instances both too hard at the start AND accessible via LFG. They weren’t too hard for learning groups, and in guild groups they were challenging and fun. But for LFG they were way too tough, and the fact that players had become used to fast easy LFG runs in Wrath didn’t help. If LFG had been restricted to normal mode instances at the start of Cataclysm so that the player base could learn the instances and gear up in a more forgiving environment, I think they would have been fine. No amount of gear requirements can really overcome the difficulty that players who have only learned content socially will have with new and complex encounters, if the more experienced members of the player base aren’t willing to patiently teach. And expecting people to patiently teach strangers (who may be idiots!) is a very different expectation to wanting them to teach members of their own guild. Blizzard I think has finally understood this with their easy mode LFR raids.

It isn’t fair to expect a random group to perform like a specialised learning group. But there is still one type of learning that devs haven’t really supported, and that is players who would rather learn and perfect an encounter on their own before joining a group. Diablo 3 shows how this can work. You can run through all the bosses on single player mode before ever joining a group, if you want. I think a lot of players would feel more comfortable if they could do something similar for MMO instances and raids. I have certainly played games where many of the raid mechanics show up in single player quests (SWTOR likes to teach you to interrupt, for example), but it isn’t the same as being able to practice an encounter carefully and at your own pace.

I suspect that presenting LFG groups with content that is too difficult for players to learn in those groups just adds to the stress levels. Players in general are not patient enough to say “I’ll come back when I have geared up more” or “I’ll try the normal mode a few more times” : they see the reward and the button that says “Queue for LFG” and they figure its worth a shot. And players who are already geared up and do already know the strategies will just be frustrated with queuing with people who don’t, particularly when explaining the strategies is tricky or would take ages.

This just adds to the stress for anyone new who is trying to learn an instance by PUGging it, which they are more likely to have to since the rest of their guild is probably off somewhere in the LFG tool too. Devs can help with this by making the encounters reasonably straightforwards, by providing as many pointers as possible in the environment (ie. graphical and sound indicators about what is going to happen), which I think they generally try to do in boss fights. Players can help by using LFG and trying to make it as pleasant and civil experience for everyone as possible. We can all shape what other players learn from their social experiences in our groups, just by modelling how we’d like people to behave towards us.

So if my SWTOR groups have been good, it is partly because the instances are quite fun, but mostly because the players themselves have been good humoured about the experience. People who were up front about their wish for a quick run and quick badges being understood and accepted by the rest of the group, people who explain that this is their first time in an instance being given the explanations they need, people who use raid markers for CC being chilled when CC is accidentally broken, the group just casually adapting if someone makes a mistake without making an issue of it, and so on.

It came from the PUG

50shades

Yes I was in a random group with someone called Fifty and someone called Shades. I would name my next alt Grey to keep the theme but I think it’s already been taken. (This means that yes, there is a possibility of a Fifty Shades of Grey instance group on my server.)

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?

You were … disloyal: How do old guildies see returning ones?

I personally think that loyalty is a vastly over rated virtue. Being loyal to family or to a partner is great. Being loyal to your employer is sweet but badly thought out (they’re unlikely to return the sentiment). Being loyal to your country is vague, mostly because unless you have dual citizenship it’s the only place you have permission to live longterm anyway.

So for me, the concept of loyalty only makes sense when it’s mutual. There is also a sense in the word loyalty that it implies “through thick and thin”, meaning there might be times it hasn’t been easy.

I only mention this because I wonder if the “we stayed loyal” faction in WoW (for example) might not be too thrilled to have players like me back for Pandaria. After all, we didn’t stay loyal through the last expansion, we probably won’t stay loyal through the next one. Being a decent player isn’t the issue, being a reliable one in the long term possibly is.

I suppose I am wondering whether my WoW guild would really want me back. They’re nice people, so they’ll be polite and we can be friendly, but from a gaming point of view, I haven’t been there when they really needed people to be loyal.  I also wonder if it was a good idea to offer them free trials to SWTOR, but that was because they were friends and I think it’s a really fun game that they’d like. I now wonder whether it was taken as an indication of intent to poach but … I just thought my MMO friends would like to try a game I’ve enjoyed.

If you are in a game where you feel you’ve stayed loyal, how do you feel about less loyal players coming and going?

The lifecycle of a [WoW] guild

Scott Andrews wrote a very good column in WoW Insider yesterday, discussing how guilds die.

I was particularly taken by his experience of his own guild, because I think this mirrors the experience of a lot of players.

First the guild is born, possibly with a core of players who know each other in real life. Then it grows. The game is still newish but by the time the original founders get to max level, they find out about raiding and decide that they want to do it.

So, initially as a social guild, the guild starts organising raids. Many find they aren’t able to keep up the constant attendance from an appropriately geared, motivated and varied set of classes. The ones who do keep going, possibly recruiting extras as needed. At this point they usually are still trying to hang onto their social ethos and avoid doing things like stacking classes (ie. benching raiders for being the wrong class) and give everyone a chance.

Some raiders will become more hardcore than others. As soon as the social guild starts to slip behind progression, the more hardcore players will switch to more hardcore guilds. Strong leadership from the guild with well organised raids and tendencies towards progression can put this off for awhile.

Eventually the stresses start to show, particularly on officers and raid leaders. And all it takes is a couple of weeks off raiding, or a couple of failed raids before remaining hardcore raiders drift off to form their own raids, or join other raid guilds. And once the core is gone and the officers are too burnt out to rebuild from scratch, the guild dies.

It’s not inevitable this happens to all guilds. Many thrive without being hardcore raid guilds and still offer raiding (mine has a good compromise, but even so, the raid group has been tending more progression focussed with every expansion.)

What does it mean? It means that WoW (and it is specifically WoW) is teaching players that the only smart way to play in a goal oriented way is to join an individualistic bunch of people who share exactly the same goal.

A game which encouraged more broad based guilds would teach instead the values of negotiation, co-operation, and getting a lot of different people with different goals  to pull together.

I’d be curious to know if anything has any thoughts about the typical lifecycle of guilds in other games.

Important Poll! (Dilemma no. 23)

As those who followed The Book of Grudges will know, I’m definitely the whimsical non-serious blogger of the family, so here’s my current contribution…

This Friday and Saturday I’m going to be meeting some of my kinmates from LotRO (kin = guild and although I always call it a guild, I try and be good on ‘paper’). Met a few of them before, but not as many as will be around this weekend. And, of course, being a geek, the main question is what I should wear that strikes the precise balance between being geek-cool and amusing to me. T-shirt, of course. So here’s the choices, and you get to vote on what I should wear for a LotRO kinmeet on saturday:

Hawaii Five-O (I got lei'd - gettit?)

Sauron gets his Ring

Dragon Quest smily slime

Lost & propaganda

The Quick Brown Fox...

Over to you:

Guild Achievements in Cataclysm — Time to Start Over?

This week, Blizzard passed out more information about the plans for guilds in Cataclysm. That’s more about guild ranks, guild levelling, guild achievements, guild reputation, guild rewards, and by the way if you’ve completed any of the activities required for guild achievements previously then those won’t count and you’ll have to do them again.

They helpfully gave an example:

Let’s just say, that for example, you need to complete the new guild achievement “We are Legendary” in order to unlock the Dark Phoenix. That achievement requires the guild to gain access to all 6 legendary weapons currently available in the game. (note that all guild achievements start on Cataclysm launch, so anything you have now will not matter, it must be done with your guild after launch)

This is just an example, so may not be the actual achievement required to unlock the pretty dark phoenix mount. But what a way to make people feel that their Wrath legendaries are not only worthless (liable to be replaced by Cataclysm greens in a few months) but also that their guild might have to go farm them all over again.  The question is, would people feel less resistance to repeating some achievement if they did so with a different or new guild?

For example, when character achievements came into the game, players had to start from scratch, even if they had completed some of the achievement raids or instances previously. I couldn’t really be bothered to go repeat the older instances on Spinks just for an achievement. But on a new alt, I might be more inclined to go out of my way to do it. Crazy, huh? But in the back of my mind I was thinking, “I’ve already beaten TBC heroics on Spinks several zillion times. Like hell I need to do that again!! It’s not my fault that the game is stupid.” I think this comes from mentally ticking off achievement boxes in your head. Once you know you have completed a goal, it feel sour to be told that you need to redo it because the first time didn’t count.

If this is true for other people, then there has never been a more appealing time in which to start a new guild. A new guild can tackle all of the new achievements together without ever having to think, “This sucks, we did that last expansion so why do we need to do it again?” I could easily imagine 10 man guilds holding regular runs through old raid instances with the aim of eventually collecting legendary items (assuming that achievement makes it live.) But I’m not sure I can imagine raids doing that who already have done it before.

Maybe one measure of how hardcore a guild is will be how easy they find it to get people to do these runs again. And again. And again. At least it answers one question about what raid guilds might do on their off-nights.  Wonder if we’ll be able to solo Molten Core at 85…

Are you planning to start or join a new guild when Cataclysm hits? I know I’m looking forwards  to tackling the achievements in our newish little Alliance guild.

Ask not what you can do for your guild …

Yesterday, the NDA on the Cataclysm beta was lifted so if anyone thought they weren’t getting enough information about that yet … expect to drown in it from now until release. If the sheer volume of data is overwhelming, then comfort yourself in the knowledge that many things will still change before launch day. So you could reasonably just save your energy and ignore it all until you get to play personally.

Top sites for info:

Comparing with the current expansion, the NDA for Wrath was lifted on July 18th for a Release date of November 13th. If Blizzard are running a similar timetable for this expansion, then they’re aiming for a release in late October. So maybe a couple of weeks after Final Fantasy 14 goes live on the PC (Sept 30th).

A look at the proposed guild perks

I’m right in the overwhelmed with data category but I was curious to check out some of the guild perks which are currently in the Cataclysm beta.

This is definitely going to change guild dynamics. And I wonder if actually these new guild abilities will encourage good practice and help guilds to differentiate themselves.

For example, some of the perks on offer will automatically pay money into the guild bank every time a guild member loots a mob. So what are guilds going to do with that cash?

  • You could pay repair costs for guild members.
  • You could pay out bank dividends every month (just divide the contents of the bank by the number of players.)
  • You could run a guild lottery – let people enter by paying in crafted or gathered items (ie. something useful) in return for a chance to win the monthly pot. I’m considering doing this for my little friendly guild.
  • you could provide guild members with consumables or even crafted goods
  • you could pay for mounts, or for starting bags for new alts
  • you could keep it all for yourself and your alts …

But the main thing is, a guild will be expected to do something with this new resource, and to inform guild members what they plan to do. Other perks include increased honor points (from PvP kills) for guild members, better results from gathering, reduced repair costs, and shorter hearthstone cooldowns.

The other one which caught my eye in the list was:

Chug-A-Lug (Rank 1): The duration of buffs from all guild cauldrons and feasts is increased by 50%.

We haven’t seen cauldrons for awhile. In TBC a cauldron was a type of resistance potion which could be used by an entire group or raid. So it looks as though guild alchemists will again be able to provide an entire group with a potion or elixir buff.

In any case, being in a guild with any or all of these perks is going to be quite a sizeable advantage for a player. And I wonder whether the perks and the push towards being guilded will make more people question what sorts of services they think a good guild ought to offer to members. Will people still be satisfied with what they get from their current guild, or will GMs be expected to offer more?