If individualism is king in MMOs, why do I get the best ‘highs’ from a good group?

Stubborn at SheepTheDiamond muses this week about whether different MMOs place a different importance to being part of a guild or other social group compared with taking care of yourself. So it’s about interdependence vs independence. There is a theory in sociology that RL cultures can be rated on various scales and compared according to how individualist or collectivist they are – Stubborn lists some of the criteria in his blog post. So for example: Japan is usually seen as a more collectivist culture than the USA.

(edited to add: Stubborn has collected links here to other bloggers posts on the subject.)

Incidentally, more individualist cultures have higher incidence of mental health issues like depression. It may well be that being part of a tight knit community with welfare safety nets is actually better for people, healthwise.

I have always enjoyed the frontiersman, independent playing style in a virtual world. But actual interdependence with real people also makes for a very exciting gaming experience. Your social skills will matter. And having other people being dependent on something that you can do does a lot to make a player feel ‘needed’. A lot of players enjoy this; for example I know I get a kick from being one of the few players in the guild who has some desirable craftskill recipe. (You could also argue that all types of interdependence are forms of power play, who has power over who, etc.)  Any game that involves co-op play can also offer a good grouping experience, based on interdependence in combat, and the greatest emotional highs I have had in online game have always been in groups. Admittedly, a bad group or a rude group can also be very miserable.

So I guess my starting point here is to recognise that humans are social animals and being a member of a group can potentially be a source of great enjoyment and satisfaction. An MMO can offer this experience better than just about any other genre on the market, because these games are based in persistent worlds, and the guilds can be persistent too.

Why guilds matter

One of the great things about MMOs is that players can experiment socially in a way they wouldn’t do iRL. For some people this means acting like a tit, for others it might mean experimenting with gender or roleplaying, with acting more confidently, or with being part of a hardcore guild.

So even if we don’t live in highly collectivist cultures, MMOs give us the chance to experience what that might be like. And it has some strong plus points. There is something very comforting about being part of a group where everyone helps each other, everyone wants to be there, everyone fulfils their obligations to the group and the group fulfils its obligations to members.  It models what families should be like, really.

In older MMOs, the earliest guilds I remember joining were all designed around this idea. We weren’t forced to tithe to the guild, but players tended to fall over themselves to give stuff to the guild bank or guild crafters. They still do – I don’t remember ever being in a guild that had a guild bank that wasn’t quickly filled with stuff players had donated.  It was a way of showing that you were a good team player and a way of ‘buying in’ to the whole guild ethos. Plus it’s only a game, you weren’t being asked to hand over your firstborn or your life savings.

So for a lot of players, we really enjoy the sense of give and take, of mutual obligation, of shared group identity, that comes with a good guild. Humans are social animals, and enjoy being in supportive groups.

Along with this, MMOs included content that needed a lot of people working together to overcome. This might have been big dragons, or complex quests that needed lots of people working together, or economic goals. There might have been group PvP goals, or faction PvP. So there’s your motivation to join a group over and above the social aspect. There might have been crafting aspects also – where no single crafter could make a finished item without input from other crafters.

A large part of being in a guild was around trust building. The player learning to trust the guild, and the guild learning to trust the player. The latter happens by the player being around and showing that they are keen to take part in guild activities and happy to play their role to whatever standard is needed.

The upsides: Access to group/ raid content. Access to better crafted goods and other guild amenities. Access to a social group, and possibly new friends. Being part of a larger organisation. Knowing that this group will keep their own guild/social rules (ie. be nice to each other)

The downsides: Guild events happen on a guild calendar, not your personal preferred dates/times.  Guild drama – this happens in any group in any hobby. Having to conform to guild rules, even if you think they are stupid. Having to socialise with guildmates (even if only on guild chat) even if you dislike them. Someone has to run the guild, this can be a lot of work. Finding a guild that suits your personality, playing style, and schedule.

For better or worse, being part of a guild is one of the core MMO experiences, especially if you are pursuing guild goals. No other type of game offers anything quite like it. The closest might be other online communities.

WoW – the game that can’t quite decide if it wants to be individualist or collectivist

WoW has wavered all over the place (in my opinion) with the individualist/collectivist trends. I think their goal is to leave choices open for players, but in practice it tends to favour individualist approaches. Even when you are part of a guild, there is a strong sense that WoW has mechanised ‘what do I get from being in this guild?’ via perks, rather than letting guild leaders make their own case. WoW’s raid model has also done more than anything to push players into taking an individualist view of their guild membership. I think they ended up with a very achievement focussed model, it’s all about the raiding and the guild becomes just a mechanism for organising regular raids.

There are still ‘social’ guilds out there, where membership means more than just being on the raid team. But it is in spite of Blizzard’s efforts, not because of them. WoW also fostered a guild hopping environment which was strongest during TBC, where progression minded players felt the best way to play the game was start in a ‘Kara guild’ and then progress by guild hopping as soon as they were geared for the next tier of raiding.

The traditional raid guild, by counter example, would progress through the content as a guild and players would normally be expected to stick with the guild. Obviously, as soon as guilds started haemorrhaging their more ambitious members whenever their progression slowed, this got a lot more difficult.

Blizzard has made noises more recently about supporting guilds. They did this by introducing the idea of guild levels, guild reputation, and guild perks. But one max level guild has the same perks as any other, plus the ‘fun’ of levelling is over for anyone else who joins. Also the LFR means that it’s easier than ever for a solo player to see raid content without being in a guild. I don’t think their guild focus was bad per se, but once the individualist cat is out of the bag, it’s hard to make guilds as appealing as when they felt more important.

Is a guild really more than a chat channel?

I have been in guilds in many different games. I felt that LOTRO was less gung ho on the individualist front – people were in guilds for the companionship and even the RP, as much as for raiding. Having a guild house also provided a good focus for events. Guilds in SWTOR are similar to WoW, many are raid focussed, some are PvP focussed, some are more social. I felt it was easier in SWTOR to make a multi-purpose guild, maybe the activities are that bit more accessible or the playerbase less hardcore.

Guilds in sandbox games like ATITD or EVE tend to have way more control over their purpose, not being restricted to dev provided content. Tale in the Desert is probably the closest I have ever seen to a true collectivist game. You could be in multiple guilds, and it was common for guilds to be extremely specific in their activities.

I suspect that the more power that a guild holds as a gatekeeper to content, whether it be high end raids or nul sec PvP, the more likely a game is to have strong collectivist tones. When the power resides more with the individual, you end up with individualism. That does give players more freedom and its not surprising that players tend to favour those games when they have the choice, but it comes at the cost of community and one of the more interesting types of online play that gaming has ever encouraged.

There has never really been a better time in MMO history to have your cake and eat it with individualism/ collectivism. Most games now acknowledge that players like to be independent and offer more soloing options. At the same time, being in a guild is still a very common part of MMOs so there are usually plenty of friendly guilds around for players to join. It isn’t the same as when guilds held more power and collectivism was more enforced, that was … definitely an experience to be a part of. But we’re not yet at the point of every man for himself either.

Also, increasingly people come to MMOs as part of an existing community, whether it be groups of friends who have gamed together before or large online forum communities. I think with GW2, especially at the start, we’ll see how powerful the pre-organised guilds can be in terms of PvP. I do wonder whether this will have a huge unbalancing effect on the game in general, and whether it will work itself out in time or whether initial biases will shape the game for the whole of its life.

Links and News: SWTOR beta, guilds in GW2, and more

This was always promising to be a strong news week, with several devs holding out news releases until last week’s PAX. I think it is tempting if you went to a gaming convention this year to wonder whether the one you were at got better freebies, better announcements, etc. Fortunately I am here to tell you that it’s actually impossible to beat Comic Con, whatever freebies or announcements are available, because it’s just like nothing on earth. Not that this is a competition or anything. Plus it isn’t run by the dickwolf guys.

MMO stories of interest:

Bioware announced that the SWTOR beta testing weekends will commence next weekend, 2nd September. You don’t need a preorder to have a chance at the beta, just sign up on their website. And be lucky.

Arenanet are allowing players to be members of more than one guild in GW2. This is a feature that I know I’ve mentioned before and other commenters have also expressed interest in. I think it’s going to be very interesting indeed and I look forwards to hearing more about it.

The Secret World’s long awaited beta signup had to be delayed this week due to network issues. This shows one of the tricky sides of running a game around complex ARG/ group puzzle solving concepts because many people on boards or social networks immediately assumed that this delay was part of a larger set of new clues. This tends to turn players towards even more conspiracy theories than they would already. Sometimes a technical delay is just a technical delay. TSW is still slipping clues out about something and there’s some thought that this indicates a fourth (probably non-player) faction.

More Links

Gazimoff writes about a story that came up about the Warcraft Magazine, who were apparently told not to give a byline to some of their writers and not others. The editor tells his side of the story in a blogpost. Print media is dead man, print media is dead.

OutDPS wonders about class identity and class balance – in particular when devs notice a potential balance issue but decide to leave it because it’s part of the class identity. eg. hunters in WoW should use traps. There is more to be said on class identities, because ‘class with the overpowered AE’ is not really a good identity. Neither is ‘class which gets its core mechanics overhauled every expansion.’ Also, ‘class that whines a lot about not wanting traps even when they’re regularly coming top of the damage meters’ is not a desirable identity.

Stabs speaks up on behalf of minmaxers and theorycrafters everywhere, and explains why he loves statistical modelling. He argues though that minmaxers ruin the game for others. Or at least pressure everyone else to play by their rules and goals.

Kill Ten Rats checks out Age of Empires Online and doesn’t like their implementation of the F2P model.

Tom Auxier responds to claims that the turn based strategy game is dead with an ode to turn based strategy games and where they are at the moment. That genre isn’t dead, it’s just pining for the fjords. I quibble with his claim that the Civilisation board game was based on the computer game, because the board game was published first. But on checking I find there was a later version that was branded as Sid Meier’s Civilisation Board game.  Sid incidentally always claimed that he’d never played the board game of Civilisation before designing the computer game.

Ferrel at Epic Slant argues that two faction MMOs are outdated these days.

Tadhg at Simple Lifeforms writes a thoughtful post about how Blizzard has been dealing with Diablo 3 fans, and discusses the difference between companies which got their start from selling boxes in retailers and companies who have always been online.

Gevlon has an example of where cliquey players are less efficient in raids. He puts this down to use of voice chat by small groups of players in a larger guild. I suspect that if you want to run a very egalitarian social group, it may be a good idea to discourage any small group from becoming cliquey and spending too much time together (because there is a risk that they’ll start seeing themselves as superior). Just I don’t see how it’s really possible to do this.

Tobold and Syncaine are friendly for a bit this week. But it doesn’t last long. Incidentally the main appeal of themepark games to both players and developers is that you can/ offer get a guaranteed level of game experience out of the game. It’s reliable. But I think Tobold is right in that highly competitive sandbox isn’t fun for a lot of players. Ultimately, if you aren’t logging into a game because you want to win but because you want to socialise or have some co-operative play, the only games that can satisfy you will be ones designed by devs who understand what that means. This could be sandbox but it won’t be the sort of sandbox that current games offer.

The Grumpy Elf ponders how to make raids PUGgable, in anticipation of Blizzard adding a cross-realm random raid finder.

The thankless life of a guild leader in a MMO

Everything you need to know about guild leading can be summarised in  that the #1 piece of advice most existing guild leaders give to someone who is considering it is “Don’t do it.”

It is terrifically fun to build and run a guild, but it can also be crazy stressful and your guild members will typically not care as much about the guild as you do. So similar to running a business, except you’re not paying them to be there, at least not in hard cash. Or making a profit.  (I wonder if a F2P business model where guild leaders pay ‘good’ players to join them and charge ‘less good’ players would fly, I’m sure the hardcore would enjoy it.)

What certainly doesn’t help is when the game design favours soloers over group players. In fact, any aspect of game design that rewards individuals for individual achievement over social or group achievement is practically begging players not to bother being loyal to a guild. I have seen similar developments in real life and wonder if we’re heading toward a job market where the majority of people will be self employed and employers will pick them up on temporary contracts as needed. But in any case, game devs these days hate guilds and are actively trying to harm them. They may not say so, they may not even know it themselves, but they’re moving to a world where there will be automated ways to do all the things guilds used to do for players and you’ll be able to do it without talking to anyone if that’s what you want. And in WoW, a new player will probably get a silent invite from a huge guild full of perks just for turning up. That’s not a guild, and certainly not a community, it’s not even an anything.

It’s a shame because guilds are and have always been one of the prime examples of player created content in these games. Just understand if you are a guild leader that the devs could be helping you more, and they’re not because they are valuing individuals over player communities.

Anyway, back to guild leading, and raid guilds in particular. Syl posted yesterday a set of home truths for raid guilds and he’s right on the money. I used to be very involved in running raids in MMOs, I ran huge public raids in DaoC, I was a class leader in a 40 man progression raid in vanilla WoW, I’ve run 10 man raids, etc etc. I presume I was a decent raid leader, or at least good enough. Yet when I got bored/ burned out, I didn’t take a break and then start running another raid, I joined someone else’s raid instead.

I do feel guilty about that in a way. I knew all the pain and burnout that goes with raid leading and I was happy to let someone else do the job that I didn’t want to do (any more.) And inevitably, they faced similar stresses about filling raids and guild drama – much less stress in a more social raid group, actually, but still present – and I … sat back and hoped that the leaders would be able to deal with it better than I did.

I suspect that for a lot of raid guilds, the flim flam that you  find on progression raiding blogs about how professional you need to act, how you should design your application form, how badass you need to be to new recruits and how you have to whip your raiders to make them perform better will not address the base problem of not having enough regular raiders in total. Or of what to do when the content is just too hard for your players. Driving away the guys who do turn up isn’t going to help unless you have replacements on tap, which you don’t. They won’t have easy answers for these problems because there aren’t any.

It might be more useful to talk, for example, about how we used to turn a blind eye to the priest who always turned up to 40 mans in shadow spec even though he was healing because dammit, at least he turned up. About how we felt when we’d spent ages trying to get friendly with people and they just pissed off when they got ‘a better offer’ from another raid group. And why it is that most guild leaders would advise anyone considering it not to bother.

Thought/s of the Day: Guild Rep in Cataclysm, and can you have too much of a good thing?

How are you all feeling about the new guild xp/ levelling in Warcraft?

Like any largish, active guild, we’ve been picking up levels at a reasonable pace and are currently somewhere between level 6 and 7, which I think is roughly where most other largish active guilds will be at the moment.

In a smaller guild with an alt, we haven’t quite reached level 2 but that’ll happen soon and people are quite excited about it.

I’ve seen posts wondering if there is any future for smaller guilds if the larger ones will have all the levels and reputation and achievements early. Whilst we’ll all get there in the end, an xp cap designed around active guilds full of high level players can feel overwhelming for a small guild of low level friends just starting out. I suspect strongly that Blizzard will do what they usually do and nerf guild xp in a couple of months or so, after the first rush of larger guilds have gotten to the max, and stopped obsessing about being first.

But one of the perks you get (at level 6 I think) is a 10% bonus to xp. Later on, there are heirlooms that players can buy which will add an extra 15% bonus to any alt who wears them. And if you have Wrath heirlooms too, that could be up to another 20% on top of that. (That makes 45% so far, if anyone is counting.) I think it’s almost guaranteed that there will be another way to get heirlooms in Cataclysm, probably involving badges in a future patch although these will probably be upgrades from the Wrath ones.

So imagine levelling a new alt with up to 45% bonus experience, and possibly rested xp, in a game where people have already commented that it’s easy to level out of a zone just from questing. I guess it’ll be great if you want to just rocket those alts up to max level.

In fact, since heirlooms are usually account bound, if you have one alt in a big guild that’s going to get the levels fast, you could even send the guild stuff to alts in other guilds, Or in other words, if you are big on efficient levelling, it makes sense to level all your alts in a big guild since you can take advantage of the xp and reputation perks without needing any guild rep (gained through instancing, questing, etc). But if efficient levelling was not your goal, then the guild perks might actually work against your playing style.

Another quirk is that you get a fair bit of guild rep from running heroics, and rather little from other sources. So small levelling guilds, even if they do get the levels, may still find that most members are struggling to reach revered or higher and buy the more desirable perks.

I’d say: nice try on the guild levelling. It still ended up being more tilted towards larger active endgame guilds, and I think a tweak to guild reputation earning would help more casual players a lot. There’s no reason why anyone shouldn’t be able to have high rep with their own guild if they’re committed to it.

Cataclysm Screenshot of the Day

cata_day7pic

(Oops, can’t remember if I’ve used these shots before.) These are a couple of pictures from Uldum, the Egyptian themed zone. It’s rather lovely. And … yes, camels.

Trick or Treat?

sweetsOver the past year, I’ve been running ‘sweet swaps’ for our LotRO kinship. It involves members of the kin giving me their real life details (name/address) and then me doing some shuffling to enable everyone to send and receive a goody bag. Think Secret Santa, but outside of Xmas.

In fact, it did actually start last Christmas with a secret Santa sweet swap. I told kin members the idea was to keep the entire thing to around £5 commitment, but to include mailing costs in that. We have members across Europe and Scandinavia and probably even further afield, but so far the swaps have been limited to Europe and Scandinavia. For the first time I tried very hard to match up every non-UK person with a UK sweet swap and the idea was always to try and find something unique to your area, if at all possible. I honestly can’t remember what I sent, but I do remember the ‘squee’ of joy when a bag of sweeties from the South of England arrived! A simple gesture, bringing happiness, and spread throughout those taking part – like a little club.

It was pretty successful, so we did a chocolate swap the following Easter. Following the same rules, but with a few more people trickling in and solely focused in on chocolate this time!

I meant to do a summer one, we had people requesting all manners of weird swaps (including my nemesis: Cheese!), but due to laziness and a kin meet-up, I’ve left it till now. Last year we followed the ‘Christian’ festival calendar, so this year we’re starting with Hallowe’en. While we may not celebrate it as much as America does, we still have cool sweets and chocolate to mark the date. Not sure everyone in the kin does, but hey, it’s also a way to spread cultural differences and note them. I think I may include some cinder toffee in the bag I send out also, and a note about Guy Fawkes.

I’d definitely recommend it to anyone interested in a fun little sideline for their guilds. It’s really not that hard, other than to gather addresses. I simply put names on paper and literally draw them from a bag. Though, we have an uneven number of participants this time, so (as Spinks might put it), I’m changing my algorithm and will create a ‘circle’ of giving where A gives to B gives to C gives to A, etc. Then I simply send everyone a forum mail with the name and address they’re sending to and a deadline date to get their sweets out.

Try it. For very little work, it gives a lot of pleasure. It’s probably my biggest contribution to the kin to date. But.. not sure what I’ll do after Hallowe’en, so all suggestions gratefully received!

It’s oh so quiet… on voicechat

We’ve had a little flare-up on our LotRO kin forums over the last week, relating to how much chatter we have on our Teamspeak server while raiding. We can be a talkative bunch, many of whom raid to hang out with more kinmates and get involved in some kind of joint activity. Because of that we don’t always come across as a highly disciplined fighting machine – but we get things done, we’ve been very successful in our raids and we keep a nice, friendly atmosphere going. So when one respected kin member posted something about the chatter spilling over into messy fights, it caused a pause to think.

Now, I admit (and the person who posted knows it), my first reaction was ‘hell, if I can’t chat, I’m not raiding’, but instead of posting anything on a forum, I just let the debate unfold. We will never agree on the perfect mix of pure focus vs chit-chat, that’s for sure. But it also reminded me of things we’ve discussed before – how many of our kin aren’t native English speakers, how different people like different levels of talking and of course, on how often we veer away from the matter of the raid and could possibly distract from some of the fights. It’s compounded because Barad Guldur (our current final raid) isn’t the most interesting, especially during some stages of trash mobs.

Being quiet isn’t what I’m used to. I’m pretty good at multi-tasking, I know my class really well and I can listen, understand, and react fairly well to things. But I needed the forum post and subsequent arguments to snap me back to reality. My playstyle is NOT everyone’s playstyle. And for me to enforce it on 11 others is worse than anyone asking me to be a little quieter during key fights. We have people who need to bring alts to the raids, we have non-English speakers, we have those who don’t raid as regularly as I do, and people who are just plain quieter (I know, SHOCK!!). Why is it worse? Because I’d be doing it knowing all the above.

It also reminded me that forums, while immensely useful, really do fall foul of the same misunderstandings as any form of written communication. I went through a gamut of feelings reading the thread – all the posts being written by people I consider friends and second-family, and I am so so happy I chose not to take part in the discussion. And we all turned up to raid last night, not embittered by the argument, but able to joke about it. And not snide jokes directed at the person who’d raised the issue, actual proper and respectful jokes. In that moment, I was really reminded why I like hanging out with my kin and what great people they all are. I even renamed my Hope Banner to ‘Quiet’ because the game wouldn’t let me have ‘Shhh’ – my first choice as a librarian, naturally.

As it happens, we also did our best yet at the Lieutenant of Barad Guldur, so maybe there’s something to this focus lark!

Raid Alliances, and What Could Have Been

There was a time during Wrath when I thought that we’d broken the mould.

The random dungeon finder had just been released. Emblems rained from the heavens to outfit everybody and their alts in T9 equivalent. And in every nook and cranny of Dalaran, PUGs sprouted newborn to tackle various tiers of raid content. Gold DKP runs rewarded experienced raiders for carrying rich alts and newbies. And suddenly, guilds were no longer the gatekeepers of group-based content in Warcraft.

When people wanted to run heroic instances, the advice was no longer a smug, “Join a better guild.” If people wanted to raid, no longer were they pressured into a raid guild. It was to be a new era of people being able to join guilds (or not) as social clubs, and access their group content through a variety of other channels.

And still, despite the gearscore mavens and hapless ninjas, this is how Wrath has played out. My new DK alt has gotten plenty of heroic runs, and already been able to check out raids to Tempest Keep and the Vault of Archavon. And not a single one of those was with a guildie (because the guild is quiet at the moment outside raid times). Yet I was still able to play my alt in groups, and it didn’t involve hours waiting around trying to persuade random people that they wanted a dps DK or trying to schedule with my guild.

In this brave new world, people could form guilds for all sorts of reasons, divorced from the mechanics of the game. Or in other words, you would not be driven to guild with people who wanted to complete the same group content and played at the same skill/commitment level. Never mind Blizzard’s old mantra of requiring people to be in a persistent team for the entire expansion. PUGs would set us free.

In Cataclysm, I increasingly feel, we will be thunderously thrown back into our boxes. Far from being more casual friendly, group content will be more gated than ever before. And heaven help the player who cannot commit to a weekly raid schedule, if they have an interest in raiding. Or the player who has friends who don’t all play at a similar skill level (the big downfall for 10 man raiding).

I like guilds, but I couldn’t eat a whole one

I love guilds myself. Ever since I was first invited by a random person to sign a guild charter in DaoC, I have been hooked. And it’s because I love guilds that I don’t want to play a game where I have to swap guilds any time my playing times change or my interests take a different turn.

I enjoy being part of a large in-game group with common goals. I just don’t want those goals (and that community) to be tied in so tightly with the class/spec I play, the online times I can make, and my gearscore.

Keen has a revolutionary take on how MMOs and guilds have evolved. He hates the tyranny of guilds and thinks they have become far too key. He also comments on how often guild drama or breakups chase people away from games. I’m sure that I am not the only person who ever left a game after a guild broke up – I was so invested in my old TBC raid guild that I had no energy left to start again after they split. (At least not for at least 6 months.)

And Blizzard DID have options. They could have kept their new shiny guild plans without chasing people into regiments that were organised around 10 clones wanting to do the same content.

We could have had guild alliances

Imagine an alternative future. A future in which you could be a member of a guild, and also of several different alliances or communities. Each alliance/ community would be formed because of a shared interest in a specific type of group content. Guilds, on the other hand, would be primarily social groups.

So if your alliance broke up over raid drama, you wouldn’t lose your guild. And vice versa. And if your interests or timetable changed, you could change alliance/ community without having to lose contact with your guild friends.

And all Blizzard would have had to do is to actually support alliances. Offer alliance channels, alliance timetables, and maybe even alliance banks. Recognise that people don’t like switching guilds and leaving their friends just because they have different progression goals. And maybe even add in some larger, PUG friendly raiding content alongside the main line of progression. Something for groups of mixed ability.

Maybe that was just too hard. Maybe they didn’t even consider it. Maybe the hardcore EQ raiders who were at the original core of Blizzard raid design just had too much influence over the design team, and they had no interest in setting players free.

But mark my words, a year from now we will look back and see this period in Wrath as our brief time of freedom from guild tyranny.

Could games do more to help us make friends?

One of my great disappointments with MMOs is that devs don’t do enough to recognise that they are social games with social elements.

But through the long history of gaming, games have primarily had a social function. Often gambling was involved, but equally the game was something that a family could play together. Games were used to teach kids about counting, games were used to break the ice at parties, games were used as hobbies and social intercourse. From the old roman games of chance, through to elaborate board games and today’s multi-player computer games, they have been tools to bring people together.

So why is it that in MMOs, it’s so easy to feel lonely even in a group?

In fact, there are a whole class of mini-games that exist to help people make friends. We call them ice breakers. And I’ve used them myself at parties or in training sessions. Their goal? To get people talking, or laughing, to help people work out their common interests, and to break down the social barriers that keep people in their shells. And they work.

Game devs even know that social bonds and social networking is one of the strongest reasons for people to keep playing MMOs, even after the novelty is gone. So why don’t we have more ice breakers in our games? Why don’t they put in extra content whose purpose is simply to get people talking, bring people of similar interests together, and maybe encourage them to continue hanging out or even to form guilds or alliances?

There was a time when a low level instance acted as those ice breakers. They weren’t designed that way, but players are (mostly) social people who will at least say hello to their group and maybe exchange a few words. Quests that required more than one person to complete acted as ice breakers, again they weren’t really designed that way but they did get people to talk to each other.

But as the player base levels up, newbies are less likely to meet other newbies in those starter instances and quests.

So what if we actually had some content that was designed deliberately as an ice breaker. Why not have ‘social party raids’ where you can guess which NPC the other players are pretending to be, or play some kind of silly IC drinking game that gets people talking and encourages them to tell jokes? I don’t mean we should force every player to be social, but for those who are interested, could this type of feature make our games more fun, more compelling, and more accessible for new playe?

Gearing, Gating, Attuning. And sometimes I miss the resistance fights …

national guardthenationalguard@flickr.com (OK, which tank has a fire resist set?)

Rohan wrote a post at Blessing of Kings which has been on my mind recently. He asked, “Was Blackwing Lair Boring?” Blackwing Lair (BWL to friends) was the second of the old 40 man raids from Vanilla WoW. It featured a large amount of dragons, and a storyline about Nefarian, the Black Dragon who was trying to breed a new strain of dragonkin. It also involved the best looking tier set in the game’s history.

And we adored it. I have very fond memories of Blackwing Lair, and even when my 40 man raid was way overgeared for the instance, people still enjoyed the weekly runs and happily signed up for them.

So I was thinking some more about how raiding in WoW has changed since then. These days, you show up on your weekly raid night/s for a few hours killing with your friends/ guildies/ random people from trade chat and then you’re done. You won’t need to farm raid food unless you are keen, someone will probably bring fish feasts which provide enough for the whole raid. Your repair bills will be handily covered by a few daily quests or dungeons. You will probably want some potions or flasks, which are easily bought, and gold in the game has never been easier to come by.

Back in the days of BWL, the raids would be the focus of your raid group for most of the week, even when you weren’t actually raiding. You would spend more time farming to cover repair bills, or for extra buff items. You might be helping your guildies to farm up some resistance gear, or quest items that they needed to build legendary weapons like Thunderfury. And if you needed any flasks … well, the only places in the game where flasks could be made were deep inside the Scholomance, or inside Blackwing Lair.

I remember getting permission to use my BWL lock (to our cleared instance) to let my friends from non-raiding guilds come in and use the alchemy table. Blackwing Lair had another bonus for crafters too, it was the only place in the game where miners could learn to Smelt Elementium, a material that was used to make legendary weapons.

Crafters were also involved in creating the resist gear that was needed for some of the fights. We had tanks in fire resist gear to tank the drake bosses. Everyone needed their own Onyxia scale cloak for the last boss also. And in that way, BWL was tied both mechanically as well as thematically to Onyxia (another black dragon boss). You HAD to kill Onyxia enough times to provide materials for cloaks for your whole raid before you could attempt Nefarian. The raid needed good crafters who had collected the right recipes – which also either dropped in raids or were bought with reputation that was collected in raids.

Raiding wasn’t just about killing bosses and getting loot. (Just mostly.) It was about completing raid instances in the right order and learning how to use drops from one raid to help complete a puzzle in another. The raid game back then was designed to be able to focus people’s attention completely.

Overcoming Barriers Together

wallclimb athenius22@flickr.com

No one will deny that being forced to collect resistance gear could be tedious, time consuming and annoying. I don’t think many people enjoyed it and I doubt anyone was sorry to see the resistance fights disappear. But often, the rest of the raid group would chip in and help.

I remember in TBC that our raid group helped to collect the materials to craft frost and nature resist gear for our tanks on Hydross (a boss which required one tank with frost resist gear and one with nature resist gear). It was a way for people who had more time and energy to contribute to the raid effort, even if they didn’t raid so often themselves. (We were more casual back then.)

In many ways, I think Blizzard has been toying for a long time with the notion of letting crafters and non-raiders be a part of the raid effort. They’ve just not found a successful model yet.

In Wrath, BoE raid drops (ie. runed orbs, crusader orbs etc) can be used by crafters to make some extremely nice and desirable gear, all of which is BoE and can be freely traded and sold. In Ulduar, recipes were random and rare drops from bosses. In TotC, the recipes were still random drops, but were much more common and also BoE so can be found on the auction house. A rich crafter could quietly buy them up. And in ICC, the recipes are no longer random drops. They are bought with frost emblems (indirectly, they’re actually bought with primordial saronite which can be bought with frost emblems).

So it’s never been easier for a non-raiding crafter to make those raid items.

The other side to resistance fights was the sense that the whole guild/ raid was working together on an ongoing basis to achieve a goal. Barriers are annoying, that’s their whole point. To annoy you until you overcome them. But the sense of working together on a common goal doesn’t apply to PUG raids in the same way.

If your pick up raid needs a tank with frost resist, you won’t be motivated to help them to gear up. It’s much easier to just shout in trade chat, “LF1M tank for raid X. Need achievement, gearscore, and frost resist gear check before invite.”

Which is my roundabout way of saying that I don’t miss the annoyance and frustration of resistance fights. I don’t miss the feeling that I was letting the side down if I had been unlucky with nature resist drops, or didn’t have enough time to farm my primals on that particular week. But I do miss the feeling that my raid was a team that was working together on overcoming obstacles, and that team included crafters and non-raiding members too.

And I have high hopes that Blizzard’s plans for guilds in Cataclysm will bring that feeling back.

* Picture notes. I wanted images that showed people helping each other to wear protective clothing and overcome obstacles. I know these ones are (semi-)military but the alternatives were pictures of kids at camp and I was uncomfortable using those, even when they had a creative commons licence.

** PS. Screw you, Princess Huhuran and your nature resist grind. But damn did it feel good to get you down.

Thought of the Day: Why random dungeons won’t kill guilds

I’ve decided that I don’t really enjoy tanking in random dungeons. Between the gogogo raid geared nutters who will die of an aneurysm if the run takes even a minute longer than necessary and the sub-900 dps death knights (sorry, death knights, I know you aren’t all like that), it’s just a little too …. random. Yes, the vast majority of groups are perfectly fine but it hits me harder when I’m tanking if they aren’t.

But if I take at least one guildie along, the chances of my group being fine increase astronomically (or at least I’ll have moral support if I do decide I want to boot someone). So my standard procedure now on Spinks is to log in and immediately ask on guild chat if anyone is interested in coming along to a heroic as moral support.

It improves my enjoyment of the new tool hugely, it’s great for them because they get a fast instance also, and probably good for the rest of the group too. Guilds aren’t going to die.

(I have also decided that I don’t really mind if the group gets bouncy and people pull extra adds as long as they’re putting out enough damage to deal with it. Once I adjusted, it’s actually quite fun. I just won’t encourage it deliberately.)