[MMOs] Your learning needs are not my problem

Stubborn has a great post up on the Epic Slant blog where he applies some of his teaching theories about collaboration to game design. You should read it, but I’m just riffing off the basic idea. He talks about how you design a collaborative task to give everyone in the group opportunities to learn.

I was intrigued because I feel increasingly that random group content in MMOs is an anti-learning environment. If people zone in with someone who is learning the fight, they’re likely to be disappointed because it will take longer. They don’t want to take ‘the hit’ of being part of someone else’s learning experience. It’s not surprising, if group content is designed to encourage group learning (I don’t actually think MMO devs have educators on board, sadly, because that would be awesome but let’s pretend) then the whole point is that the group learns together.

Even a lot of learning players would rather be boosted and not have to bother learning the fight than be thrown in with a group of similarly experienced players and all learn it together. That isn’t a function of noobiness, a lot of experienced players would do the same thing – just they’d probably actually bother to learn the fight at some point. Although possibly not to the same holistic level – if you learn a fight in a group where everyone else already performs their role well then you will only really learn your own role. You won’t learn how the fight fully works.

People are lazy. Only raid leaders are really motivated to fully understand fights. A lot of players are happy to just be told what to do. None of this is surprising. I also think it is most fun to learn a fight in a group of similarly skilled players who are also friends who are learning together; it’s harder than ever to get this type of group together except at the beginning of new content. Because people will head into LFR to learn what they can.

Your learning will slow us down

The other week we raided again with an old guildie who has just rejoined after spending the expansion in more hardcore raids. He’s a great guy, good player, geared to the gills, knows the fights backwards, and it was lovely having him back in raid chat. We got to one of the boss fights (Blackfuse) where some of the DPS have a slightly different role – he said he was happy to try it but it would be his first time as his old raid hadn’t let him do it before so he wasn’t really sure how it worked.

This gives an indication of how specialised and risk averse some raid groups can be. If you didn’t happen to be That Guy who took on that role when the raid first learned a fight, they will be reluctant to give you a chance to learn unless they have no choice because learning takes time and that would set them back. So do you make the whole raid wipe a couple of times while new guy learns the positioning or tell him to go practice in LFR/ go back to his usual role so you can make more progress?

Has learning got more scary in MMOs?

So what I am wondering is whether it has gotten scarier to learn new roles or fights. PUGs don’t care if it was the first time you saw the raid, they’ll have to judge you on what they see. Progression raids worship progression and will be frustrated if you take too long to learn.

I guess with a new WoW expansion coming up, we can say it’s easier to get into learning mode at the beginning of a new content patch when everyone (briefly) is learning together. And the goal isn’t just to learn, it’s to learn as quickly as you can do you don’t get booted from your raid later. That adds a certain extra stress that I suspect good educators would have tried to avoid. I wouldn’t be surprised if more and more people just avoid group content – it only takes one really stressful experience to kill someone’s confidence.

And I wonder if the genre (such as it is) would be more long lived if more design effort was put into making the learning experience less stressy.

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.)

How we learn. And what is fun anyway?

The discussion this week about levelling in WoW – too fast? too easy? not enough challenge for experienced gamers? has inspired me to do some digging around for information about how adults learn. Sorry if this gets a bit technical.

There is a lot of interesting work done on this topic, and I think the notion of Andragogy (how adults learn) is actually pretty cool. I especially like the notion that as adults, when we learn something new we want to be able to use it as soon as possible. I always thought that was just me being really impatient ;)

There are two basic views on adult learning:

1. Learning should be about overcoming a series of challenges. From this point of view, a bit of anxiety is part of the learning process. It would be very common (maybe even necessary) for people who are learning something new to think, “Eek, I feel a bit lost and out of my depth here, how can I do this new thing?” You have to get to that stage before you can move on and actually learn, and deciding to ease the anxiety by mastering the new topic is one of the ways adults motivate themselves to learn things.

There’s an interesting quote here in which one psychologist claims that learning isn’t really fun for adults, and says that learning only happens when survival anxiety (omg I need to know how to do this OR ELSE) outweighs learning anxiety (erk, this is a new thing and I don’t know how to do it.)

Schein dismisses the notion that learning is fun, especially for adults. He equates adult learning within organizations with that of the brainwashing techniques he observed while studying prisoners of the Korean War

Each of these anxieties could be managed, for example learning can be constructed in a “safe” environment where the consequences of failure are minimal. Survival anxiety can obviously be increased by threatening job loss, a lack of security, or recognizing competitive elements of the market.

So this is where games come in. The game should be a safe environment for learning where the consequences either way are pretty low. In a more competitive game, or where players are more invested (maybe your guild performance is important to your social life) then you get the other anxiety too.

I think anyone who has raided with a progression guild will probably know that feeling of being terrified of failing to learn quickly enough and letting the side down. But on the other hand, hobby gamers tend to enjoy the learning anxiety and being able to make it go away by mastering the game. We’re good at learning. Hold onto that, it’s a very useful life skill :) People in this group would dispute the claim that learning isn’t fun because for us, it’s the entire basis of our hobby!

Just bear in mind that it actually might not be fun for a lot of other people.

2. Learning through play / experience. The idea here is that people will learn by doing things, and they might not realise how much they have learned until they get a chance to think about it and talk to other people afterwards. There is also an idea that all learners are equal; as long as they are actually doing something (ie. and not avoiding the experience altogether) then they are learning and will have something to bring to the discussion.

This is why the WoW blogosphere is so interesting. Some people want to talk about strategies for high end raiding, others about how they work gaming in around their family life, and others just want to share pictures of their in game pets. They are all sharing different but valid experiences of the same game.

So from this perspective, the goal is to create a friendly environment that should be easy to get into with lots of ways for people to go off and experience it in whichever way they want. In other words, the buffet approach to MMOs.

So there are some kinds of player who just don’t want to deal with stress or anxiety. They aren’t playing because they want to be challenged in that way. They might be challenged in different ways (I want to collect 100 pets! I want to explore the virtual world!) but it will all be very controllable and they probably appreciate having a well marked story path available.

I think that the more MMOs bring in gaming elements, the more they will tend towards the first category. Structured sets of challenges, underpinned by strong competition to motivate people. And the mystery of WoW at the moment is how they are trying to make the low levels offer an immersive learning environment at the same time as the high level raiding offers a very different sort of gaming experience. Clearly, if you are an experienced gamer coming into the game new, it’s just going to be frustrating until you reach endgame (at which point it will be frustrating for different reasons ;) ).

Naxxramas Revisited

I’ve been back to Naxxramas a couple of times this week. Time has dulled the pain of over-exposure — I was really quite bored of the place after having run it twice a week (once on 10 man, once on 25 man) for a few months. Despite the sub-par graphics, I’m quite fond of the old instance. It does have a good variety of encounters, even if the tuning was never quite right.

The biggest flaw to my mind is that it’s far too easy to brute-force the Spider Wing. But by doing that you lose the most interesting parts of Anub’Rekhan and Faerlina as boss fights (what’s the point of Faerlina if you don’t have to mind control and sacrifice the adds?). The second biggest flaw is that there are too many bosses to clear in a 3 hour raid unless you are all being very hardcore/ disciplined about it, which doesn’t happen even in successful PUGs. A smaller raid instance or a set of winged instances would have been more manageable.

I wouldn’t say I’m overgeared, it’s just undertuned

My first Naxx rerun was in a raid that a friend in the raid group organised for alts and new level 80s. She’s very concerned that they don’t have much of a chance to learn how to play their characters in raids, especially some of the (female) players who are nervous of being shouted at in PUGs. We’d hoped to have enough signups to run a 25 man raid but in the event we only had enough to run with 10.

Although I do have a couple of level 80 alts who could have gone, I offered to bring Spinks to help them out. I doubt there’s anything I need from Naxx-10 even as offspec but I eyed the signups and figured they’d have a much better shot with at least one (over) geared tank. Also, I suspect seeing my name on the signup list made them all feel more comfortable about the run.

The raid was a moderate success. We got the two easiest wings down, and a few people learned the fights who had never seen them before. A new raid leader had a chance to order people around and see bosses die. DPS was generally low, and I’m grateful they didn’t want to go on to the Construct wing as I don’t think we could have taken Patchwerk. So although many people would consider that raid a failure, most of the players had their expectations met. And some of the fights were still exciting — they may have been exciting because people weren’t playing especially well but we still had some fun skin-of-the-teeth kills.

I fear there isn’t really much you can do for people who want to learn to raid but are nervous of PUGs and heroics and mixing with people they don’t know. There comes a point at which you can only learn through practice and these things aren’t really designed as fun social experiences for nervous raiders. Plus a lot of people in the raid group really are burned out on Naxx and won’t want to spend time there when there are other things they can do which would be more beneficial to their characters.

I do think it’s possible to teach nervous players to raid based on one raid per week, and I won’t be at all surprised if dps improves next time. But it’s a slow process and it really isn’t guaranteed that other players will be as patient as the newbies might need. They could help themselves a lot by getting over the PUGphobia.

And then there’s the raid I walked out of due to sexist quips …

I swear I have a pretty good tolerance for off-colour humour among gamers. I can sit back quietly and let them have their fun even if I don’t have anything to add. But what I don’t have is any tolerance for sexist, racist, or homophobic jabs. Not funny. And I will tell people if I’m not amused. And if they persist then I’ll walk. I figure you get one chance to realise ‘wait, someone here is uncomfortable with this’ and if you don’t take it then I’m so very gone. And if I’m one of your healers then you may be very stuffed.

So. The second Naxx raid was a 10 man PUG that I hopped into on my resto druid. Again there aren’t really many drops I need from Naxx-10 but I’m still at the stage with that alt where I figure I could use the practice. One of my friends was there too, also healing with her paladin. Unfortunately she had a power outage near the beginning so they had to replace her.

And it was a good PUG. People were chatty, we cleared through the Spider wing smoothly and then the Plague wing as well. It was only after we killed Patchwerk that things started to fray a bit at the seams. One of the holy paladins flew into a rage when one of the moonkins asked why he was rolling on spellpower leather which had spirit on it and left. (This boggled me, because the piece might still have been an upgrade for him but if so all he had to do was say so and I don’t think anyone would have minded if he’d taken it.)

But fortunately my friend had her power restored at this point so we invited her back. It was actually more amusing than this because she’d only just logged back on at the time and had just paged me to say how sad she was to have missed the run. So I’m like, ‘Hey, do you want to come back then? Our holydin just flipped out over loot.’

So we’re trucking on through the Construct wing. The last two bosses here have tended to be the skill checks for pick up Naxx groups. No one ever wants to kite the zombies at Gluth and Thaddius continues to confound PUGs (it may be his role in undeath). After a second wipe on Gluth, our MT was getting grumpy. And the sexist jokes were coming out. I was chatting privately to my friend about this and we were both agreeing that neither of us really needed the Naxx loot and didn’t really see a reason to stand for it. So after one warning, which he ignored, we apologised to the raid and left.

I was paged about 10 minutes later by one of the raid, saying that they’d booted him and would we be willing to come back. Since they’d been nice enough people (and competent too) that’s what we did. Awesome guildies were nice enough to agree to come fill in the other spare spots (a dps had to leave for RL reasons too) and we rocked through the Military wing. By that time, people were tired and wanting to go eat so we called it.

And the bonus? One of the nice players contacted my friend later, asking how she could apply to join our guild (and as it happens, I know it was a female player and she was attracted by the fact we’d no tolerance for the sexist guy and we’d been able to bring other friendly guildies in to finish the run). Now let me tell you, any PUG in which you get the chance to recruit a friendly, competent player is in no way a waste of time … Also, dps shaman! :)

The other interesting side-fact was the class makeup of that 10 man PUG. Three druids, two paladins, three shamans, two deathknights. It’s an interesting view into what alts people are playing at the moment.