My exploit; your lateral thinking; his emergent gameplay

The game I am most looking forwards to playing at the moment (yes, even more than Diablo 3!!) is Scribblenauts. It’s a DS game that has been described as an emergent puzzle action video game – the slogan on their site is Write Anything, Solve Everything! The big lure is that you can use anything you can think of to solve the game’s puzzles. It’s set up to reward pure out of the box thinking.

Like many gamers, I love this kind of challenge. If I’m presented with an in-game world, I don’t want to be limited by the programming as to how I can interact with it. If I’m in a bar, I want to be able to pick up a chair and throw it at someone.  Or how about bribing the bartender to spike their drinks. Or maybe sneak into the cellars and engineer a power cut. Anyone who has played pen and paper games will be familiar with this kind of thinking :) I don’t want to be told – err, you can’t talk to the bartender, we didn’t think of that! Or – you can talk to the bartender but only if you want to ask for a beer.

Obviously, video games have their limits. They are limits that can only be stretched by very creative programming, or letting you interact with real people who are able to hop outside the box with you. The strengths of these games is in the way they can model games with very fixed rules like chess, Tetris, or MMO combat, or let you explore a virtual environment as long as you don’t want to interact; and probably not in how they model AI or human NPCs.

Well of course hardcore guilds find exploits!

One of the big news stories out of WoW at the moment is that Exodus, the guild who got the first ultra-hard mode Yogg-Saron kill have been banned for 72 hours for finding and using an exploit. Here they talk about it in their own words.

The ban looks to me to be punitive, setting an example to the rest of the hardcore guilds. It’s also rather arbitrary – as they say on their site they aren’t the only guild to have used questionable tactics on the first kills in some encounters. Blizzard really should sort itself out and get these bans under control. All they had to do here was fix it and remove the achievement from Exodus (or change it to something thanking them for finding and reporting the bug, which is what I would have done if it was my decision).

In any case, it’s not surprising if hardcore guilds find exploits. They explore the raid content deeper and more thoroughly than anyone else, especially when they are searching for a world first kill. Yes, the exploits shouldn’t be there in the first place but no test team in the world is as motivated as a ultra-hardcore raid guild.  Part of exploring new raid content is trying to think outside the box, trying to second guess the devs, trying to figure out what you have to do to solve the encounter.

So the games encourage people to use lateral thinking. But  not too lateral because that might be an exploit.

Having said that, these guilds are perfectly aware of when they find something that makes the encounter a lot easier than intended. And again, I think this is where the temporary ban is meant to send a message. If you find something and you know (with your experience of being a hardcore guild) that it’s not right, then you shouldn’t use it. That’s a rule for people who thrive on breaking rules, in games that encourage you to break rules cautiously to solve new puzzles.

I’m reminded of a hardcore guild leader in DaoC who noted that when he was leading a new raid, they’d do whatever it took to get the boss down (that was Gideon of Servants of the Lake, if anyone played Alb/Prydwen and remembers them). That’s what being hardcore means.  They weren’t cheaters – just they liked to win, and they liked to think outside the box and prided themselves on being good at it.

So do they want us to think outside the box or not?

The answer is not really. But players clearly have a strong appetite for being given more freedom in how they solve puzzles.

I thought it was interesting that there have been a few ‘exploits’ involving people using adds from one encounter to help beat another one (usually by stealing buffs or something like that). It’s not completely without precedent. In vanilla WoW there were raid encounters which could be made easier by using encounters outside the raid (remember the fire resist buffs from UBRS and the various world buffs from Onyxia and ZG?). I’ve always thought it was a shame that they never really followed up on this.

Why should an instance basically be a load of corridors leading between rooms with bosses in it, with each boss encounter totally self contained? Wouldn’t it be more fun if you could use something from earlier in the instance to help solve a puzzle later on? Might make the raids more coherent storywise also. That hardcore guilds keep trying to do this should be a sign to designers that there’s a hunger for it as a legit tactic.

So, bans aside, I hope that designers do look hard at the exploits and get ideas for new raid encounters from them. Because if there’s one thing that players are very very good at, it’s doing something totally unexpected.

And until then, I’m looking forwards to seeing if I can break Scribblenauts (wonder if it knows what ‘great cthulhu’ is).

You’re in the army now!

Ardua at Echoes of Nonsense shares his experiences that players tend to be more organised and disciplined in games with a PvP focus.

I’m guessing he’s never been head to head with a hardcore raid guild, but he has a good point. It doesn’t matter how many organisers you have, if players don’t want that kind of disciplined environment then it won’t happen. And in order for players to choose to spend their leisure time being ordered around, they have to feel that the game is worth the candle. There have to be  rewards in game where organised teamplay gives a strong advantage.

I’m remembering back to the first MMO that I played, which was Dark Age of Camelot. I was an officer in a guild where the majority of other officers didn’t care about raids or guild events and preferred to PvP in small groups (with the occasional largescale guild PvP outing). So they never supported any attempts to organise guild PvE raids. In fact, they would actively boycott them. It was a classic example of a friendly but unfocussed guild which had never set down any guild direction.

The officers assumed, “People who like raids can run them and people who don’t can go and do something else.” They even appointed a PVE coordinator, assuming that he would take care of it all and they could continue ignoring his efforts. There was drama, and because it was a RP guild, it was passionate wall-chewing drama. There was crying and tearing of hair. There were accusations of people ‘betraying’ the officers and being evil snakes in the grass whose only reason for joining the guild was to screw it up (I kid you not, one officer did go off the rails on this tack – I don’t think he’d ever heard of Occam’s Razor).

The bottom line is that in order for people who like team events to get the gameplay  they want, they need a minimum number of others to join in. They need support in drumming people up and motivating them. Whereas the officers could go PvP whenever, and so ‘everyone do what they want’ worked fine for them.

Games provide a number of lures for organised play.

  • As Ardua noted, PvP tends to favour the more organised side. So players who care about winning will be motivated to try to be part of a team. And that doesn’t just mean being the one giving the orders. It also means being the person taking them.
  • PvE raiding is usually designed to need an organised team. That means people join the team, accept orders from a  raid leader, and carry out their part.

There are differences, of course. But the main one is that in PvP, it will seem more like the players’ choice — if you want to win, you want to be in the best team. In a PvE game, it is a more obviously heavyhanded game design forcing people into raid teams.

In either case, the games encourage players to group and guild by providing rewards which are only accessible to organised teams. ie. something that you can’t do alone and can’t do without some kind of continuing commitment to the group.

There are other social reasons to form friendly cliques or guilds, but it’s the lure of winning the game or seeing more content or progression that drives most people into them. Even if it is just to have a pool of friends to draw from so that you can avoid the worst cases of PUGs.

But why does it have to be military?

When we talk about military-style guilds, it’s usually all about the notion of having a badass disciplinarian in charge and players are expected to carry out their orders unquestioningly with precision. There will be lots of shouting. There may be a zero tolerance guildkick policy. People will be disciplined whether they like it or not.

It’s just one style of leadership. But it’s an effective one in games. The idea is that when you join a guild like that, it’s because you really want to be in a highly effective team and whether or not you like the military style, you’re willing to put up with it because the ends are worth the means. It also stands or falls on having a good leader available. These guilds aren’t always cults of personality (a smart guild leader will recruit good officers who are equally capable of leading and share her leadership ethos, but that’s easier said than done) but often without the GL they fall apart.

Although it can sound like a fascist dictatorship, the military is a reasonable metaphor. You join up as a grunt, are trained to be disciplined, and sent off to kill lots of stuff or other characters in a way that makes use of that discipline. And then you are rewarded for it in a fair manner (ie. paid).

People mock the military style guilds because they take themselves so seriously. Because people willingly sign up to spend their free time being  yelled at on Teamspeak. And because to people outside that gaming style, it doesn’t make sense.

But when you’re in a guild like that which runs well, what you see is an organised, disciplined guild which runs like clockwork. You get to spend your time in game  among other people who enjoy the rewards from playing that way and want the same things out of the game.

Other styles of leadership

There are other popular and successful ways to run effective organisations in games. They are equally baffling to less hardcore gamers, in the sense of “why would anyone want to do THAT?”

Just bear in mind that the players who join want to be part of an organised and effective groups and most of them are happy in their guilds.

The Corporate-Style Guild

If your guild leader has ever used the phrase ‘leveraging our synergies’ you may be in a corporate type of guild.

If they often quote management books and read them in their free time, despite being a student in a different discipline with no actual experience of management, you may be in a corporate style guild.

If they try to make you follow written grievance procedures when you have a complaint, you may be in a corporate style guild.

If they are really really big on ‘being professional’ then you may be in a corporate style guild.

The Sports Team Style Guild

The guild leader sees themselves as a coach and motivator. They expect other players to be equally motivated. They will often speak in sports metaphors. They tend to be very hardnosed about recruiting, feeling that players ought to move on and up when they’re not happy with their current guilds. Just like professional sportsmen would. If someone is underperforming consistently, they’ll get dropped from the team. Nothing personal, but everyone has to make the grade.

Some guild leaders veer more towards the coaching side and will take a lot of time to sit with people who are underperforming. Others like to motivate their team via lots of shouting on voice chat and bitching people out in public. But all of them will eye performance meters with interest. They expect the team to come first for everyone. They tend to talk about ‘my team’ a lot. Even more than the military style guild, a sports team tends to be a cult of personality around the coach/raid leader.

The sports team metaphor works very well for gaming. It involves people voluntarily spending their spare time on a hobby, with a strong emphasis on team play.

The Professional Style Guild

Top guilds have the luxury of being able to pick and choose recruits. Some pick only highly motivated and skilled raiders. Once you are in that kind of atmosphere, you can run as a professional style group where leadership is more of a ‘first among equals’ arrangement.

Everyone is there because they want to be there. People don’t need to be reminded to try hard, they come from a self selecting subset of players who would do that anyway. All they need is a bit of direction and someone to advise on strategies. They tend to compete with each other, and often will coach each other too.

This type of guild is all about the recruitment, and being able to convince skilled, motivated players that they’ll be able to raid with others who feel exactly the same way that they do. And no one will have to shout or treat them like grunts or nobodies. No BS about sports teams. Just an effective bunch of hardcore gamers who want to beat content.

It is a type of corporate guild, but maps more to managing professionals in a partnership than it does to a standard company.

Other Styles

One thing you get from  these leadership styles is that they’re appealing to people who like the idea of playing at being in the army, or being in a successful sports team, or being part of a successful business. As well as having some success in game, the style of organisation itself is a draw.

There are other ways to run effective groups in game. But most of them will require some kind of continuing commitment from members.

Although some casual players balk at the idea any kind of commitment, without it there would be no community at all. And even in casual guilds, you’ll miss out on a lot of the community if you don’t log in occasionally to chat, whether or not you have a minimum specified attendance in your guild charter.