How to switch to being more casual

I have played hardcore. I have played casual. And let me tell you, switching from one style of play to the other is not just as simple as only logging in for a fraction of the hours. It involves  a change of the way you view yourself in your MMO of choice.

Being a casual or hardcore player isn’t just about the hours played or the raid schedule, of course. You can put in lower hours and still play like a pro. You can put in longer hours and bimble around with your alts. But switching from 5 nights a week to 1 night a week is still going to require a change of mindset, as well as of logging time.

It is also completely normal for people to re-evaluate their play schedule when a new expansion is coming up. Do I want to be less hardcore in Cataclysm? Would I like to try to get into a top 100 guild, and what would that involve? Would I like to do things differently in the next round? Has my life changed (new job/ university course/ baby/ relationship) and does my gaming need to change too?

For example, if you are used to playing in a heavily scheduled, hardcore raid guild, you probably see yourself as being among the elite of the server. So what happens when you have to cut your playing time? Your raid may need to replace you by someone who can make all those scheduled raids. It won’t be personal. It won’t be a comment on your failure to get out of the fire in that one raid last year.  But you may still feel like a failure, and see the raid options available (apply to a more casual guild? PUGs?) as being beneath you.

Similarly, if you’re used to being one of the mainstays of a highly social or RP guild, having to cut your hours means you simply won’t be around as much. People will talk to someone else instead. Friends will still like you and be happy to see you when you are around, but you will feel as though you aren’t the centre of the guild any more because you just aren’t there as much. You will be very aware of all the exciting RP that goes on when you aren’t there and probably quite jealous, even though it’s no one’s fault that you missed it.

So if this sounds a bit like a 5 step program, it’s because most people will be shaken in their game identity if they have to play less. So if you’re going to make this switch (which you may have no choice about), AND be happy, you have to come to terms with a few basic facts. And learn to enjoy your decision and your new playing schedule.

1. People with less time have to make hard choices, you will miss out on some things

In many ways, players with limited time are the only ones who get the opportunity to make real choices in MMOs. People with virtually unlimited time can pretty much do everything that they want. They have the time to level all the alts, attend all the raids, practice all the trades kills, make all the in game networking contacts. But you will have to prioritise. Other people may not be under the same pressure.

So although your choices do matter more, you must accept that you have to make them. Events will also happen that you will miss, and some of them you will have really wanted to attend. You need to learn to live with that.

You may also end up feeling less engaged with the game. You’re putting in less hours, doing other things as well. It is sad to step back from something that was an important part of your life, but people change and it’s natural for priorities to change too. You’ll always have the memories.

2. Pick your goals smartly

Because your choices matter more, you need to pick sensible goals for yourself. What do you actually want to accomplish in the game? Will your current group/ guild let you do that? If your current guild is making you miserable because they are based on everyone playing a lot and you can’t keep up, then maybe it’s time to look around for a group that suits your circumstances better.

It’s not easy to leave a social group behind. But infinitely better than staying and being miserable because you can no longer fit in. Plus there are plenty of people knocking around who have made the same decision in the past and will understand where you are coming from.

If you want to raid, would you prefer to find a casual friendly group that has a relaxed schedule? Or switch to a server with very frequent PUG opportunities? (A high population server with a lot of raiders will offer infinitely more raid PUGs than a low pop, less progressed one.)

Some goals are inherently more casual friendly. PUGs and battlegrounds can be hopped into at any time. Solo play can be taken at your own pace. You’ll soon find out if any of your goals aren’t feasible because you’ll be frustrated all the time you are in the game. If this happens, look harder at your current goals.

Plus, of course, it’s easier to make sure that events happen when you want them if you can organise your own.

3. Picking a suitable class/ tradeskill

Some people will tell you that tanks or healers are more casual friendly because they don’t need to wait so long for instances. Or specifically healers if you want to PUG raids – they’re always needed. Others will suggest DPS because it may be an easier role to learn, and more of them are needed.

I’d say that the best notion, as usual, is to pick the one you love. But if you’re looking for a regular raid spot, it will be a more uphill struggle with a tank.

And while hybrids will give you many more options, it also takes longer to gear each role and learn to play it. Having said all that, the answer to anything in WoW at the moment is probably paladin. Great at soloing, very forgiving, can tank/heal/dps, not too difficult to learn, no competition on the healing plate.

Trade skills are another matter. Understand that the actual crafting skills are usually time sinks and players with more time will have maxed them out long before you get there. You will make more money in less time by going with gathering skills. This is not to say that it’s a bad idea, just something to bear in mind when picking goals, and don’t expect to be the only enchanter in the village.

4. Try to be happy

Don’t be jealous of people who have more stuff or more time in game. It is hard to adjust from being one of the time-rich ‘haves’ to being more time-poor, but hating on random people won’t help. If you are used to being one of the people who always helps everyone else, it can be tough to switch to being the one who is asking for help.

I think it’s the change in mindset which is more painful than actually having less time. No one minds crafting stuff for you if you ask politely and give them the materials (and a tip, if appropriate). It just can feel harsh if you are used to being able to make everything yourself.

Still, there is plenty of chilled out fun to be had. You can do pretty much all of the things on a casual schedule that people could do with more time (it may be that cutting edge raiding is off the agenda, for example). But you have to do them in different ways and maybe a different timescale.

It is just the nature of these games that more time = more stuff. You could also look for alternative games where this isn’t such a factor. Just bear in mind that Blizzard have been trying to even things up for people who play less right since the game opened (e.g. rested xp, limited boss attempts) and people with more time have consistently found ways around it.

5. Find people to hang out with who understand where you are coming from

If you spend your time in game with a bunch of hardcore gamers who raid five nights a week, you will also spend a lot of time comparing yourself with them and being miserable about how much you are missing. As a casual player, you will very likely have more fun and be less stressed in a guild which has a good mix of people and is less focussed.

It doesn’t mean you can’t play with the same people. A fixed levelling group or regular casual-friendly PvP evening will put you on the same footing as everyone else who turns up. But that takes buy-in from everyone. A guild which makes active use of bboards during the day will make it much easier for you to keep up with what is going on and feel involved, even though you may not be in game so much.

Don’t stay in a group or game which is making you unhappy, though. Instead think about why it’s making you so miserable. Are your goals incompatible with your availability? Are your friends on a different schedule?

Playing with people who have more/less time to game

In any MMO, there will be some people who play more, and some who play less. Unless you either always solo or always play in a fixed group who log in at the same times every week, you will hang out with both people who have more time to play and people who have less.

At the moment, I notice this because I’m playing more than one MMO (WoW and LOTRO). In one, I’m the ultra casual. In the other, I’m not. And in both cases, I play with people who spend both more and less hours in the game than I do.

Can it cause friction? For sure. People who play more hours will almost always have more stuff, more alts, more trade skills, more time to raid, more practice at the game skills, more friends/contacts in the game. After all, most ‘choices’ offered in MMOs vanish if you have enough time to do everything. (Which class should I pick? I’ll just level one of everything. etc.)

People who play less may be more casual, less skilled, have less gold. And that takes some adjustment. It can be frustrating for the lower hour players (why do I always have to be worse at everything? Isn’t there any one thing I can do that player X won’t pull out 17 alts who do it better?) as well as the more intensive players (how can Y not understand this simple thing?)

And of course, people often change their playing schedules. For example, at the start of Wrath a lot of WoW players featured it heavily on their gaming schedule. There was a lot to do – levelling, rep grinds, gearing up, organising raid groups. And as people get more bored or have completed more of the game, they tend to play less. They still have all the stuff and all the skills which they accumulated during the initial glut, but will spend less time right now. This type of play isn’t the same as a more casual player, even though they might be putting in the same hours.

Do you play with people who spend a lot more or less time in game than you? What issues have you found? And how do you deal with them?

5 Challenges for Cataclysm

Chris at Game by Night is dubious about whether Cataclysm can really keep Warcraft players occupied for another two years (the average time between WoW expansions up till now). Yes, there are new races and new levelling content, but once people have worked up their new alts … what then?

In many ways, the most surprising thing about Cataclysm is how little we have heard about it. It’s going to be released this year, but when? Is it in beta yet? Where are the screenshots or artists impressions of the new zones? Maybe a picture of a well known zone seen from a flying mount? How about some more information about the dance studio (i.e. ability to choreograph your own dances) which was mentioned at Blizzcon?

Just for comparison, the first beta leaks from Wrath were in April ‘08, and the expansion was released in November of that year. If Cataclysm is aiming for a release before Q4, we should start hearing more about it very soon. The longer they delay, the more likely that the expansion won’t go live until the end of the year.

Aside from that, there is a question of what exactly it really would take to keep WoW players occupied for another two years.

For raiders, I’m sure Blizzard can dole out the raid content at the same rate they have been through Wrath. For alt-fans, an old worlde revamp, new races, and 5 new zones will certainly keep people busy for awhile. Blizzard have also mentioned reworking some of the old dungeons as high level heroics – if they did that to all of them in addition to any new instances then that’s a lot of instanced content also. Plus the rated battlegrounds, which I suspect will be one of the really big features in practice.

So, same old same old. More zones, more dungeons, more races, more battlegrounds. But is that enough? And if not, what exactly would be enough?

Here’s the five main challenges I think the expansion will face.

  1. Rated Battlegrounds. How well will these take off? If this plan works, then it will throw a nice chunk of both content and challenge at raid guilds who are bored of running the same raid four times a week. Plus should be fun for the more casual guilds too. They will need to find a way for people to opt out of the ratings if they want to go run a random battleground or else the whole casual friendly, solo friendly nature of bg PvP will be lost.
  2. People who can’t raid or don’t want to raid. Wrath opened up WoW raiding to more people than ever before. Some will be hooked and raring to go on Cataclysm raids. But what about the people who decided that actually it isn’t for them? It may be that some form of cross-server LFR tool will make raids a fun, casual friendly option. But as I’ve said before, I don’t think a regular tuned 10/25 man raid would work for a cross server PUG.
  3. Hardcore disengagement. Hardcore raiders have worked within the new hard mode /normal mode framework for raid instances. But how much do they actually enjoy it? Do they want to sign up for another expansion of more of the same? More working their guts out to beat hardmodes, when the majority of the player base just doesn’t care any more and isn’t especially impressed because they are happy with their normal modes and get to see the same fights anyway. How many will decide that it’s just not worth it?
  4. Levelling through Outland and Northrend. Now, Outland and Northrend both offer very cool and fun levelling experiences. But how are players going to feel when they leave the revamped old world and have to chug through 20 levels of unchanged content before they get to the new Azeroth zones? How many of those new alts will actually make it to endgame?
  5. Class Balance and Hybrid Vigor. Wrath has seen hybrids winding up with a good deal of in game privilege. They get the extra flexibility of multiple roles, at very little cost (apart from the extra time and effort to gear up). We know that Paladins and Druids (and Death Knights, natch) have all been gaining in popularity – last armoury survey showed that over 15% of all level 80s were paladins. I’d expect this effect to become even more marked as more people create new alts in Cataclysm. Druids will get vastly more popular because … worgen druids. Plus of course, a class talent revamp for all classes could unsettle everything.

The big problem of course is boredom. People who are bored of the game are not going to be enthralled by more of the same, and Blizzard has shown no signs yet that Cataclysm will include anything other than more of the same.

And really, they have to go with ‘more of the same’ for the players who aren’t yet bored – plus they will want to increasingly save their new ideas for the unannounced MMO that is yet to come. This isn’t to say that WoW is being short-changed, but that the original design might just not be welcoming to some of the new things designers want to do.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I think they will at some point figure out how to make fun cross server PUG raids. I think the rated battlegrounds will be wildly successful, more than most people are expecting.

I think that the new expansion will struggle to hold a lot of existing endgame player’s attention for more than a few months. This happens anyway with any new expansion, but the drift will be faster than ever, and it won’t depend on new games coming out. But remember, a lot of new or returning players will be coming back to start again with Cataclysm. They won’t all be bored yet. They will enjoy the more accessible instancing and raid content. Blizzard is banking on the new wave replacing the old. Time will tell if they are right.

Impressing guilds as a tank, failing to impress PUGs as a tank, and what is difficulty anyway

This is a switch and bait post in which I attempt to cover my lack of a Star Trek Online beta review this week (my excuse is that they dropped a new patch on Wednesday and I need more time to explore and remove whines which have already been addressed – an occupational hazard of reviewing betas) by pointing at some great posts written by other people. Enjoy!

Impressing guilds with your tankitude

Rage Quit Jane (awesome handle) writes on The Nomadic Gamer about the expectations people have of tanks. And the very first expectation is that … you will actually tank stuff.

She’s coming from an EQ2 perspective, which is a game where classes have more fixed roles than they do in WoW. Or in other words, your EQ2 tank shouldn’t expect to be able to grab a couple of two handed weapons and out-dps the rogues if they don’t like tanking.

If you apply to a raid guild as an off tank then the first thing you should be doing is proving that you can actually tank. Show everyone that you enjoy the character, want to actually play the character, and make yourself available to your guild mates.

No matter what game you are playing, if you apply to a guild which uses role quotas (ie. you apply as a tank or a healer for example) then they are hoping to find players who enjoy the role in which they have applied. No one wants a grouchy tank who spends all the time complaining that they’d rather be on their warlock. If they open a spot for a tank, they want to see a happy tank who enjoys their class and their role.  That’s rather the point.

This doesn’t force you to be the guild slave. You can perfectly well say ‘Sorry, I’m up to my neck in instances this week and I need a break.’ But at least while you are on trial, try to sound and act as though you are enjoying the game and the role you are playing. Although non-hardcore players sometimes get the idea that the hardcore turn the game into a job, it’s actually more important in a hardcore guild to show how much you love your class and role. Because they’re looking for people who love it so much they won’t mind putting in the extra time and effort.

This is true of many RL jobs as well.

‘Abusing’ the LFG Tool

Relmstein writes about people who abuse the LFG tool, whereas Gevlon positively encourages people to use it to their own advantage.

Wherever you fall on this spectrum, a few things are becoming clearer to me:

  1. You cannot prevent people from leaving groups whenever they want. If they can’t do it in game, then they’ll either just log out or not join the group in the first place.
  2. LFG may end up being good for server socialising in the longer term. The more that random people ‘abuse’ the tool, the greater the incentive to actually talk to people on your own realm before queuing. Whether this means paying tanks to come tank for you, or just asking around on trade chat for people who you KNOW will want to finish the run—it’s all about the social contract.  Or in other words, social behaviour is rewarded.
  3. People will drop groups for the weirdest reasons.

Would we like more difficulty in our MMOs? And if so, how?

Tobold asks for some design help on behalf of the Blizzard team.

We have some ideas, based on our experience as serious Everquest raiders, on how to make a MMORPG really hard. But some of the team say that certain features of Everquest wouldn’t be acceptable any more for our Rise of the Leet King MMORPG.

So what ideas do you have to make the game harder, if you think it isn’t challenging enough right now? Go join in the conversation. (I am also surprised at how many people thought this was a genuine letter; it is however a great blog post.)

When expectations change

Tobold wrote about a week ago about players and their sense of entitlement. Do players have a right to feel entitled to easy levelling, easy loot, and accessible raiding, or is it just as much a sense of entitlement if the hardcore feel entitled to always be a quantum leap ahead of the rest?

The word entitlement implies a sense of  rights. For example,  I have statutory rights as an employee, as a consumer, and as a British citizen. Those rights are enshrined in (local) law. So as a consumer, I’m entitled to buy items that are fit for purpose – and if they aren’t, I can go argue my case in court and the state will back me up if I’m right.

In a computer game, we don’t  have rights in the same sense.  No one is entitled to anything beyond their standard consumer rights when they buy a game. What we do have, however, is a sense of expectation. If I buy a book and I don’t like it, my consumer rights aren’t breached because the book being fit for purpose doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be a cult classic. It just means that it has pages with words/ pictures on them and can be read (note: insert legal definition of book here if you are feeling pedantic). If the book radically fails to  fit the description on the jacket then maybe, just maybe, I have a case. But if my expectations are shattered then I won’t buy another book by the same author (unless they are shattered in a good way.)

But what expectation do players have from MMOs? The box and advertising will tell you a lot about what it is possible to do in the game, but cannot guarantee that you will be able to do those things, because many of them require the cooperation of other players. That’s  the one thing that no one can sell you, unless the box specifically states, “bring some friends.”

So maybe you go in, sold on the idea that you can create a character of your own to explore and adventure in the virtual world, and meet other people. Those are reasonable expectations. Everyone will be able to do that. But what then? Will the game allow you to finish all of its content, or will some be locked to specific groups of people or need commitments of time or money? If you see someone wearing a cool outfit, will your character also be able to get one? If you read about something fun that another player did, will you be able to do that also?

In a single player game, the answer may well be ‘yes,’ depending on the difficulty and time required. In an MMO, it may also be ‘yes,’ depending on the difficulty, time required, and other players required. But the ‘other players may be required’ is part and parcel of having massive games.

Still, where do the expectations come from of:

  1. Hardcore raiders will become the nobility of the game?
  2. All players will be able to do everything?

The answer is, those expectations come from within the game itself. No one went into their first MMO with any assumptions beyond, “Cool! I can create a character and go explore this virtual world with other people in it.” The assumption that people who put more work into their virtual characters will become more powerful in the virtual world is just a case of people mirroring real world assumptions – that’s not really surprising in itself, but it is the game play that determines what forms of  ‘virtual work’ are most valuable in the game. In a strongly social game, that would mean time and effort spent in politicking and socialising. In a WoW-type MMO it could mean hardcore raiding, or beating the economy.

Expectations can change, or be changed. In Warcraft, each patch has changed the expectations of the player base for the future of the game. If casual players feel more entitled to raids, loot, and achievements, that’s because Blizzard has indicated that this is how the game is now played. It isn’t a sense of entitlement that came out of nowhere. Back in the days of Vanilla WoW there were complaints about raid inaccessibility, but I don’t recall anyone ever expecting that the majority of the player base should or could raid. Similarly, if the hardcore players feel a sense of entitlement, that didn’t come out of nowhere either. The first few years of the game indicated that Blizzard intended a class based playerbase with hardcore at the top. They put dedicated hours into the game on that understanding. Both parties have good reasons for their expectations, but they cannot both be met at the same time.

The developers decide what players are or aren’t entitled to. So when a game changes to the extent that Warcraft has, it isn’t surprising that everyone is on edge. No one knows what their assumptions should be any more. People cling to the last patch as either an aberration that will be fixed in the future, or the shape of things to come. And so we pick apart the discarded musings of the blue posters (official Blizzard posters) as if we could divine the future from their entrails. Our rights in the game may depend upon it.

Thought of the Day: How we define challenge

I’ve read a few bloggers recently commenting about how challenges change in MMOs. Tobold joked that hunters were changing to FPS gameplay, as a way of talking about how WoW is tending towards twitch based challenge and away from knowledge/ puzzle solving — granted it wasn’t ever very puzzle based but it’s clear that designers now assume everyone will look the strategies up and are trying to find other ways to challenge players.

Gevlon has been thinking about why hardcore players complain about nerfs. Looking at the marathon example, the hardcore don’t ever have to be in contact with the casuals so why would it matter what they do? Again, it’s to do with the perception of the challenge and people being concerned that their previous achievements will be less ‘valuable,’ especially in a game where people often define their self-worth by what challenges they have beaten. (Sure, there are other reasons to complain about nerfs, I remember being sad when Ulduar was first nerfed because I was enjoying the original difficulty.)

This all reminded me of a wise comment I read recently on a bboard. From an rpg.net post by David J Prokopetz:

The ready availability of strategy guides and online FAQs seems to have lead many hardcore gamers to conclude that the only “real” challenges are those that test your reflexes, and those that test your patience.

Exploration-based challenges are deemed worthless because you can just look up where to go next; likewise reasoning-based challenges, because you can look up the solution; resource-based challenges are out because you can look up the optimal distributions; strategy and tactics disdained because you can look up an algorithm and apply it by rote; and so forth.

Ultimately, any challenge that doesn’t boil down to pure twitch or interminable grind will be dismissed out of hand.

So maybe it all does come down to spoilers in the end. But it speaks to something in player mentality where someone who levels naked (in game) or beats Ulduar in blue gear will be widely respected, whereas a group who go into a raid instance ‘blind’ so that they can figure out the strategy themselves will be mocked for not looking it up like everyone else. The player base values some challenges more than others.

It doesn’t look good for the non-achievers or people who prefer puzzle based play to twitch. But at least we still have single player games. And of course social players face the biggest challenges of all: running a successful guild or raid group.

And because it’s still being great, here’s the obligatory Torchlight screenie. My vanquisher at level 12 with a new gun. Why is it that I hate the thigh boots and miniskirt look in Aion but really like it here, I wonder?

Vanquisher with gun

Applying for more powerful characters

Imagine an MMO where instead of starting at low level and working your way up slowly to godkiller levels, there was provision for character types with very different tiers of power. (Maybe peasants and crafters just have a wildly different endgame to landowning nobles or successful adventurers.) Instead of always progressing the same character from low level to godkiller, you would just apply for a higher level character slot if you wanted to play one.

And maybe requirements for getting a powerful character might include some or all of these:

  • brief interview with a GM or staffer
  • showing that you play a minimum number of hours a week to prove that the character would be active
  • showing that you can afford to spend more money on the game
  • show that you are competent at playing the game
  • experience at playing similar types of character/ role in the past
  • show that you have connections in the community (maybe that you’ve been in a guild for awhile or run some kind of social network in the game)
  • show that you know your way around the gameworld, even the obscure parts
  • show that you are able and interested in organising the community (maybe you’ve been a raid leader, organised successful RP events, or PUGs)
  • show intimate knowledge of game mechanics
  • show that you know the lore
  • show that you can speak good english (or whatever the server language is)
  • show that you can write good english (ditto)

Would you end up with very different games to the types we have now? What qualities would you ask for? Do hardcore players ‘deserve’ more powerful characters if they fulfil some or all of these criteria?